Not so long ago, an engineer going through training at GE Healthcare opened the receiver subsystem on a telemetry unit he was learning to fix and pulled out a component. Seconds later, the device, which typically costs thousands of dollars, burned out. “Did you turn the subsystem off before you took out the card?” said Kevin Jackson, a maintenance expert who was watching the trainee.
The unit was a goner, but there was no screaming or hand-wringing, and no money was lost. That’s because the entire scene played out inside virtual-reality goggles.
Over the last several years, VR has evolved from a novel gaming interface into a powerful training tool. Among the early adopters of this technology was GE, whose businesses have been using it to teach workers to fix turbines inside nuclear power plants, repair the electrical grid and, now, maintain medical devices.
Every year, hundreds of students like the one involved in the fried unit “situation” visit the GE Healthcare Institute in Waukesha, Wisconsin, to learn how to repair, maintain and upgrade some of the most expensive equipment in hospitals, including MRI and CT scanners and ultrasound machines. “We are losing thousands of years of experience in our industry” as people retire, says Arthur Larson, the general manager for GE Healthcare’s global services training and documentation.
Today, a growing number of the trainees at Waukesha experience their lessons inside VR goggles. VR simulations conjure up more than just lifelike replicas of the machines. They can also re-create many of the unique problems and procedures that engineers must master as part of their field responsibilities. It is “almost like having a trainer or field expert inside their head, inside their glasses, helping them go through those steps,” Larson says.
Jackson, who has taught at the institute for 11 years, first floated the idea of using VR to train students in early 2017, after meeting some engineers from a VR startup at a conference. The engineers programmed a virtual version of Jackson’s classroom. About 150 field engineers and trainees for GE Healthcare have since “walked” into the virtual room to master the art of medical device maintenance.
It’s a big departure from how Jackson used to teach: He’d spend half an hour setting up one of 13 different scenarios for students on an actual circuit board to practice repair.
But with the virtual-reality headsets, he can program a scenario in just a few minutes, and students can get through several in one class. He says the extra practice offsets the lack of physical interaction with a real board.
Teaching engineers in hospitals with VR headsets can save money, too. Jackson used to carry enough equipment to fill an SUV when he traveled to train engineers at hospitals. He needed to make sure practice transmissions didn’t interfere with actual patients’ vital signs, so he would haul in large server racks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep his training telemetry on one network.
Now the load is much lighter. Jackson travels with a half-dozen laptops and virtual-reality headsets. In a year, he’s trained engineers at five hospitals using the goggles.
The trainees, who have ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s, have sometimes been skeptical. But after a while, even the most dubious find themselves engaged. Jackson will often notice students squatting or moving to look around a corner, even though they’re using a controller and goggles. “They feel they are in that world,” he says.