Nova Scotia

Fear makes virtual training lessons stick in Nova Scotia's thriving VR industry

Nova Scotia could become a leader in virtual reality training, as two local companies build high-priced simulators for everything from at-sea rescues to towing airplanes.

2 companies build simulators that mimic on-the-job scenarios

Darren Forest with Bluedrop Training and Simulation practises using the Hoist Mission Training System, a virtual reality simulator built by the company. (Robert Short/CBC)

There's nothing quite like hanging out of a helicopter dozens of metres above the ocean to give you perspective. 

You've been given the job of guiding a metal cable, with a man attached, safely to a ship below. You know it's all fake, and that it's all computer-generated images beamed into a virtual reality headset to trick your senses. 

But the fear is real.

There's a little primal piece that says if you fall out of the helicopter, you will die. 

Companies and governments are increasingly turning to that simulated hands-on experience to help train people in a range of on-the-job scenarios — from rescues at sea to towing airplanes — without putting lives at risk or spending a fortune on elaborate mock exercises.

"I don't think it's hyperbolic to, say, compare it to something like the Gutenberg press," said Willie Stevenson, the president of Silverback Games.

Reporter David Burke attempts to control the hoist cable, despite his fear of real and virtual heights. (Robert Short/CBC)

His company is one of two in Nova Scotia at the forefront of virtual-reality training; the other is Bluedrop Training and Simulation. Their work has led the Entertainment Software Association of Canada to predict that Nova Scotia could become a leader in this new field.

Contracts can be worth millions of dollars apiece, and all the work at Bluedrop and Silverback is completed by a small core group of permanent employees. Each company has about eight to 10 permanent staff, but hires up to 30 or so contract workers for different jobs.

"The vast majority of our clients are outside of Nova Scotia, so we're also hoovering money from the U.S., Europe, Asia, and bringing it into the local economy," said Stevenson.   

His company, based in Halifax, makes video games and creates virtual reality training. Silverback already has a deal with a major airline, one Stevenson won't yet publicly identify, to use virtual reality to help train its airport ground crews.

The aim is to make sure a plane worth hundreds of millions of dollars isn't accidentally pushed into a hangar door.

"If you just make a certain mental model of the physics of it all you can teach somebody by repetitive game play," he said. "Before they even get into the tractor you're well ahead of the game."

Forest holds up a virtual reality headset and attached helmet. (Robert Short/CBC)

The virtual reality experience is so realistic it gives people a leg up when they do the real thing. 

"At the end of a big lesson they're like, 'I did it.' Then they take it off and they've had fun and they don't even realize, like a Trojan horse, we snuck learning in their heads," said Stevenson.

Silverback has seven major projects in the works, including programs for the aerospace and marine sectors.

Each training module Silverback does can take two months to a year to complete, depending on the complexity of the simulation. The costs vary, starting in the tens of thousands of dollars range.

The view inside Bluedrop's virtual reality headset. The still image doesn't do justice to just how realistic and immersive Bluedrop's simulator is — the visuals, sounds and interactive environment combine to make the simulation seem incredibly real. (Bluedrop Training and Simulation)

Just south of $2 million will get you a hoist simulator put together by Bluedrop Training and Simulation, whose products are aimed at helping train military personnel.

The Hoist Mission Training System helps teach helicopter crews to use a mechanical hoist to lift people and objects in and out of the helicopter while flying. 

The system is more than just a VR headset. It also includes a mockup of part of a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter and a metal cable and hoist system. The cable can be manipulated to react the same way it would under a range of conditions, including high winds.

In order to operate the hoist, the person in the simulator must hold the cable. The more the cable moves the more the person operating the simulated hoist has to adjust it to control an object's descent or ascent. The cable also reacts to the way the person handles it in the simulation. 

Willie Stevenson, left, president of Silverback, and company co-founder Colleen Shannahan show off their airport training simulator. (Robert Short/CBC)

In the real world, this kind of operation is dangerous and can kill someone or cause thousands of dollars in damage if done incorrectly. That's why practising first in virtual reality is so important, said Barbarie Palmer, the senior director of business development with Bluedrop.

"The operations of a helicopter can be thousands of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars an hour for operations when you consider the full total cost," Palmer said. "This will be a fraction of that ... with the ability to practise the same sort of evolutions that you would in a helicopter."

The company sold its first simulator to Boeing last summer, and the hoist simulator has been sold to 12 Wing Shearwater — the Royal Canadian Air Force base on the outskirts of Halifax.

Barbarie Palmer is the senior director of business development with Bluedrop Training and Simulation. (Robert Short/CBC)

While the virtual reality training industry is relatively small in Nova Scotia, the province is in a near perfect position to be a leader in the field, according to Jayson Hilchie, president and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada. 

He said the province has a generous tax credit to help develop the industry, potential customers like the navy close at hand, and there's a good labour pool of workers in the video-game industry to draw from.

The only challenge the industry could face, said Hilchie, is the fact the talent pool isn't as deep as provinces with larger populations like Ontario, Quebec or British Columbia.

"On all of the other fronts I think there is nothing holding back Nova Scotia from becoming a leader in virtual training in AR [augmented reality] training because they do have the industry there," said Hilchie.

Along with making training simulations, Silverback continues to make video games. (Robert Short/CBC)
Silverback has a core staff of eight employees, but the company often takes on contractors to expand its ranks. (Robert Short/CBC)


David Burke


David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.