VR could enable factory workers to work from home

Many manufacturing jobs require a physical presence to operate machinery, but that could all change thanks to virtual reality (VR).

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a VR system that lets the user tele-operate a robot using an Oculus Rift headset.

Wearing the headset, the system embeds the user in a VR control room with multiple sensor displays, making it feel like they are inside the robot’s head. Using Oculus’ controllers to interact with controls that appear in the virtual space, the user can operate the robot’s arms and hands to complete various tasks -including precise actions, like picking up screws.

“A system like this could eventually help humans supervise robots from a distance,” explained CSAIL postdoctoral associate Jeffrey Lipton. “By teleoperating robots from home, blue-collar workers would be able to tele-commute and benefit from the IT revolution just as white-collars workers do now.”

Reporting on the development, CSAIL said that there have traditionally been two main approaches to using VR for teleoperation.

In a direct model, the user’s vision is directly coupled to the robot’s state. However, a delayed signal can lead to nausea and headaches, and the user’s viewpoint is limited to one perspective.

In a cyber-physical model, the user is separate from the robot. The user interacts with a virtual copy of the robot and the environment. This requires much more data, and specialised spaces.

The CSAIL team’s system is halfway between these two methods. It solves the delay problem, since the user is constantly receiving visual feedback from the virtual world. It also solves the the cyber-physical issue of being distinct from the robot, because once the user puts on the headset and logs into the system, they will feel as if they’re inside the robot’s head.

Tests showed that CSAIL’s system outperformed existing systems and could be operated from hundreds of miles away.

See the system in action in this short YouTube video.

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