Making virtual reality a reality at AGBNHS
ACOA funding, Sydney firm make hydrofoil simulation possible
The year is 1919 and you’re sitting in the driver’s seat of the world’s fastest watercraft – the HD-4 hydrofoil. Built by Alexander Graham Bell’s boatyard under the supervision of chief engineer Casey Baldwin, the craft now sits on the Bras d’or Lake, ready for a spin. On September 9, Baldwin set a marine record of 70.84 mph while piloting the craft. Now it’s your turn to see how you handle the wooden framed boat with two aircraft engines strapped to the rig behind you.
That is the virtual reality that has been made possible by Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) funding and the work of the VMP Group, a Sydney-based digital agency.
On September 8, 2017, ACOA announced $300,000 in funding at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site (AGBNHS) where two virtual reality modules now reside next to the full-scale replica and remains of the original HD-4 hull. Half of the funding is allotted for the virtual reality project while the other half has been earmarked to develop an online store and improved marketing for the museum’s gift shop.
“I think he’d be a little overwhelmed with the level of technology these days, but I’m sure he’d be fascinated,” said Casey Baldwin’s grandson, Sean Baldwin, who emceed the announcement.
MP Mark Eyking was on hand to make the announcement on behalf of the Government of Canada.
“It was a really cool experience, especially the kids are going to love this sucker. I think that’s a big part of this whole thing is young people,” said Eyking after trying out the new technology
And new technology it is. Though the concept of virtual reality has been around for decades, Shawn Green, President and CEO of the VMP Group, told The Standard it has only been in the past few years that computer technology has reached a point where virtual has become viable.
Like Bell and Baldwin, Shawn and his brother Stephen have not been afraid to try and fail on the path to success. The company’s first project in 1995 was an underground mine safety and rescue training simulation. Green says the technology of the day wouldn’t allow them to deliver the experience they envisioned. Consequently, the push towards virtual reality was sidelined for them and for many other companies.
Three major areas of improvement have now made the experience possible. Advancements in screen resolution and frame rate (number of different pictures seen by the eye per second) have been key, but Green also emphasized the near elimination of something called latency.
“Latency is the amount of time it takes the signal to go from the computer to your eyes. That latency was what was making people dizzy and nauseous [at the time]. They've now reached a near instantaneous delivery, so when you move your head around, it tracks as if you were looking at something in real life.” Green explained to The Standard.
Also like Bell and his associates, the Green brothers have not been afraid to take risks.
“The technology that you see here today was developed prior to the funding actually being granted by the government. So, he [Green] took a big risk in making sure that the technology was ready for today,” stated Matthew Hart, spokesperson for the Alexander Graham Bell Museum Association, during his remarks.
Parks Canada has worked with the VMP Group for many years, implementing their technology at sites across Cape Breton. The hydrofoil simulation had been considered for several years but it was only last fall when design concepts and building plans started to take shape.
Individuals over 13 can experience the full virtual reality simulation for $7.30 while children under 13 can use the video screen (no headset) for $4.90. Admission to the site remains free for the rest of the year.
Joan Sullivan (front) experiences what her great-grandfather Alexander Graham Bell never had the chance to do - pilot the record-setting HD-4 hydrofoil across the Bras d'or lake. Looking on are Stephen Green, Vice-president of the VMP Group who built the device (left), and Hugh Muller, great-grandson of Bell.