Russ: Hi, I’m Russ Capper and this is The EnergyMakers Show. My guest today, Vincent Higgins, Founder, and CEO of Optech4D. Vincent, welcome to The EnergyMakers Show.
Vincent: Thank you, Russ.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about Optech4D.
Vincent: Well, Optech4D is a virtual and augmented reality solutions provider for oil and gas, aviation, aerospace. We are building enterprise solutions. We are the software side of the business, and we’re doing great things with this new technology.
Russ: Ok, well in my opinion, the software side of the business is the key to it. I mean there’s quite a few pieces of cool technology, some of them on display here. But software, that’s tough.
Vincent: So, we started out as a simulation company, building 3D simulators on 2D screens for oil and gas, mostly downstream. Taking the CAD models, bringing them in, recreating these worlds, and then when the immersive technology started coming into play, like the Oculus Rift, and the HTC Vive, we immediately pivoted quickly towards the hardware to provide an immersive experience for simulation.
Russ: Ok, I don’t even know the spectrum of hardware offered, but I know it’s pretty big now. I mean, every time one comes out, do you have to learn it right away, or do they have to prove themselves first?
Vincent: They need to prove themselves. We do tests, we do a lot of R&D, but for oil and gas, they’re pretty demanding. For aviation, aerospace, construction, it has to be something that’s a viable option to create return on investment. So, it has to be a very good experience, an immersive experience.
Russ: Ok, so you mentioned several industries, all of them major. Are you in all of them?
Vincent: Yes, yes we are. Our first vertical was oil and gas, but in the last year and a half, we’ve developed a lot of great relationships in aviation and aerospace, mostly because our applications, our software, ports over into those industries very easily. You think about inspection, or maintenance, or permit to work in oil and gas, the same applications will roll over into these other industries relatively easily. Small tweaks of the software, we have a new industry to get involved with.
Russ: Ok, so I’m curious about the other side of this business transaction, meaning your prospects and customers. I mean, are there real customers today, or is everybody just sort of real curious about this new sexy technology, and like to look at it and take up your time, but aren’t ready to buy it?
Vincent: Well, let’s distinguish between augmented and virtual reality. So, virtual reality is a little bit more mature. It’s two years old, two and a half, in terms of the immersive experiences. So, that is disconnecting yourself with the real world, putting a heads-up display, walking into a virtual environment; could be an offshore rig, it could be a chemical plant, it could be a manufacturing facility, an airplane hangar, and you do the training and competency assessment in that world. And you can recreate any kind of disaster, crisis management situation that you could ever imagine.
Vincent: On the augmented reality side, it’s like taking off your safety glasses, putting on smart glasses, and having visual information floating around you as you’re doing your work. So, if you come up to a pump or compressor, or heat exchanger, the digital information you need to do the work at hand is available just by turning your head.
Russ: Ok, so go back to virtual reality. In the beginning, I always used to look at it like, this really is cool, but virtual reality, what’s the difference between virtual reality and sitting at a big screen monitor and being able to look around on the monitor itself?
Vincent: Well, in virtual reality, you’re immersed with site and sounds. You have 3D sound, high resolution graphics, you turn your head and basically feel as if you’re in that space. So much so that after about five or six minutes in the simulator, you forget you’re in your office or a training center. And that instantly increases your ability to capture information and to learn. The rate for capturing information is so much higher when you’re in an immersive environment. Those are, they are building white papers around that today to show that you have 75 or 80% better retention rate in a virtual simulator, as opposed to say, classroom learning.
Russ: Wow. Ok, give me a best use case for VR and AR.
Vincent: Ok, one of our clients, one of the supermajors, they decided a few years ago, rather than training their folks offshore, particularly around the helideck, all the on and off of passengers, (Russ: it’s dangerous.) luggage, yeah very dangerous area. They decided to move all of that training to their training facility close to Houston, and it saves them almost 2 million dollars a year, per year, because they’re using our simulator. And it involves calling the helicopter in, the helicopter lands, a refueling, there’s actually a crash scenario where you just roll over, you have to pull avatar bodies out of the helicopter, and spray the deck with foam. So, really, it’s all about that muscle memory allowing you to provide a visceral experience that you would never get in a paper manual, or a video, or a classroom, and is tremendous return on investment, with regards to that.
Russ: Ok, what about AR?
Vincent: So, augmented reality is around maintenance and inspection. So, imagine you are a maintenance individual in the field, you are a young guy, like many are today, and you’ve gone beyond your knowledge base, you don’t know what to do. There’s troubleshooting to be done. You can call an expert in the office, he can see what you’re seeing through the front facing camera, you can have a dialogue, the person in the office can send you diagrams, and specs and data that you can see in your peripheral vision, and you’ll just turn your head and you’ll see those there. He’ll then disconnect, and the expert in the office goes to the next person. He can have 50-100 people that he supports in the field. And he’s the expert supporting all these younger operators doing their work with tremendous return on investment, with what we call the remote expert video capability.
Russ: Ok, now is that an application, moving to hardware, which you don’t make but you know it all, that you could use the Microsoft HoloLens for? I mean, what I’ve seen of that piece of hardware, it seems to be above all the others.
Vincent: It is because it’s using some newer gesture based and voice based technologies. I think we’ll see in the next few years these smart safety glasses will all have voice recognition as well as gesture based technology, so you can move windows around with your hand, you can talk to the device and say, ‘next step,’ or ‘zoom in and out’ from what you’re looking at. So, you keep your hands free, even in a noisy environment, and be able to manage through things in a very intuitive way with your voice and the gesture. So, HoloLens is an example of where the technology is heading. It’s not really suitable today for heavy industry, it’s really for an office environment, but we see the technologies behind it coming into play with all the new heads-up displays.
Russ: Ok, the oil and gas industry, it seems to me, there’s a broad spectrum of applications, do I have that right?
Vincent: Yes, absolutely.
Russ: Ok. Give us an overview of that.
Vincent: Well, what we do applies in virtual reality as well as augmented reality. In virtual reality, it’s our all-around competency assessment and training, and in augmented reality, it’s all about field operations; folks that are in the field, doing their work with these next generation smart safety glasses where you visualize information, hands free, as you’re doing your work. So, similar applications, they do cross over, but overall one is competency assessment and training, and the other is field operations.
Russ: Ok, and we hear that safety word all the time. I mean, it’s obvious when it’s necessary, but you probably just play a big role in that, top to bottom, in the industry.
Vincent: We do. Energy companies are obviously very concerned about safety, but equally, are more concerned even, about saving money, and this does both. That’s what’s beautiful about the technology and where it’s heading, is it saves a heck of a lot of money while also creating a safer environment.
Russ: Ok. I know in oil and gas there’s lots of environments that are fairly restrictive on what you can do, what you can bring in there, a cell phone or not. How do these devices rank in certification for the industry?
Vincent: Sure. Tablets and phones can’t be brought into a refinery or a chemical plant, or an upstream environment. They have to be certified, and the challenge for the hardware providers, we do the software, is that they be certified intrinsically safe. And there are two varieties: Class 1 div 1 and Class 1 div 2, with the most hazardous of environments being Class 1 div 1, and a lot of the oil companies are requiring at least Class 1 div 2 for these next generation devices.
Russ: And how do the hardware manufacturers stack up for that?
Vincent: They’re getting there. Some of the first ones are being certified as we speak, and I think Q2 this year will have a couple of hardware devices, smart glasses, that will be available for the energy industry.
Russ: Ok, you know, when we look at oil and gas, there’s always the drill site, there’s the offshore site, which is so sophisticated and complex, but there are other parts, too. You know, there’s pipe laying, do you guys play in that role as well?
Vincent: Yes, for about two and half years we’ve been working with one of the largest construction companies in the world, an international company, around their pipe laying. So, pipelaying is about laying pipe at the bottom of the ocean. The ocean is a mountainous region, so they have to plan, and dynamite, and create these paths for these pipes, so we’re doing all kinds of operational type training and competency assessment on the actual ships. So, we take the CAD models, the engineering drawings, put them into our gaming environment, our engine, and recreate a virtual world of the entire offshore pipelaying vessel.
Russ: You know, I know a little bit about your background and your education. I believe it’s mostly in physics, is that right?
Vincent: That’s correct, yes.
Russ: And, you know, you have this general background, you have this like for technology, but man, moving into this oil and gas space is kind of a huge universe to really get in the middle of it and sell solutions. Do you find it challenging?
Vincent: It is, but it’s also very rewarding. We have a great culture here, and we’re always being so creative in trying to find solutions for our clients. And we’re trying, we have a strong R&D side of our business because there’s new technology, new hardware, new ways of developing software, and we are surprising and wowing our prospects with these technologies. Now the technologies can be a distraction as well, because they’re just too cool sometimes. So, we focus, on an ongoing basis, what’s the return on investment. We focus on what is the use case that will really add value for them.
Russ: Really interesting. So, I mean I know you’ve already told me that you have all of these software engineers here, lots of them that came out of the gaming world, which makes all the sense in the world. You have a lot of technology people, general business people. Are you now at the point where you’re even recruiting and hiring people out of the oil and gas space?
Vincent: We are; project managers, engineers. What we take pride in having subject matter experts on staff, particularly in oil and gas, and aviation, because we need to be able to speak their language and understand their pain points. So, we’re not a media company, we are an oil and gas aviation company that does augmented and virtual reality, not in reverse.
Russ: Great. Well, Vincent, I really appreciate you sharing your perspective with us today.
Vincent: Thank you, Russ. I appreciate it.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Vincent Higgins, the Founder and CEO of Optech4D. And this is The EnergyMakers Show.
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