Ignite Spotlight on Business by Quin Hauck
I had the pleasure of meeting David Peabody, a project manager at Unity's Calgary office, at a tech demo.
As a 90's kid interested in video games, I was familiar with Unity Technologies and its reputation as a leading software development platform for creating popular games like Fall Guys and mobile classics like Pokemon Go.
"We're a tech company, not just a video game company," he told me, “We’re heavily invested in the energy space with clients here in Calgary and around the world." It was clear that Unity's capabilities extended far beyond just gaming, with involvement in various industries such as film, VR, architecture, industrials and automotive, and the list goes on.
During the tech demo, I was introduced to Axl, Unity's robo-dog, in partnership with Boston Dynamics. The robot, which was capable of obstacle avoidance, backflips, and 360-degree video and photography, was powered by Unity's software. The demonstration highlighted the diversity of Unity's resources and how they constantly push the boundaries of technology and give users a glimpse of what the future could look like.
As I watched the reactions of the business folks at the demo and a group of curious children who came to take a look, it was clear that Unity's technology had the potential for a wide range of applications that could still bring as much delight as games. Thinking about the possibilities and potential for further innovation here in Calgary was exciting.
The next time I met with David, I had the opportunity to speak with Nick Facey, a Global Program Manager with Unity, who’s the leader of the local Calgary team. Nick's insights further deepened my understanding of Unity and its work in Calgary. “Video games require and lead to the creation of incredible technology, but the user doesn’t have to be an engineer to get the full benefit and experience. We’re committed to bringing that same approach to the industrial sectors. “
"In Calgary, we're expanding, but currently largely the Accelerate Solutions group, and that's a team that delivers industry-first use cases and scaling solution partnerships," Nick explained. "What we're doing is looking for companies that want to get out in front of change and drive innovation, and then we build it together. Suncor is a pretty neat example of that."
One project Nick shared with me was their work on the giant mining trucks used by companies like Suncor in Fort Hills, Alberta. Initially, Nick described the project as more of a pilot project, but the ramifications of their work had incredible outcomes.
"A lot of companies are dubious in their innovation arm, which has pretty big gaps to their production arm," Nick said. "There is a massive opportunity here. If we drive 5% change in outcome [accuracy, timeliness, safety, etc.], it brings tremendous value to our partners."
David Peabody & Nick Facey///Unity
I wanted to understand how this project relates to the work Unity does. Nick explained that the project's next stage was innovative and challenging, using AR projection technology to solve obstacles in the mining process.
"It solves multiple problems they have in the shovel: the number of screens they have, access to unusable information, and ultimately the lack of data to the operators. All that stuff is low-hanging fruit," Nick said. “The idea is anything they have on the screen– and some of these shovels have more than seven screens in them– should be relevant, timely information delivered in an intuitive way. The industry standard is not an optimal user experience. No designer has ever really worked on it.”
He explained that by projecting the information in AR, the whole windshield can become a transparent projection screen. Unity’s proprietary projector casts fully in AR, with an adjustable focal length of 17 to 40 feet away. This solves the issue of the difficulty of refocusing one’s eyes on the shovel and the surrounding area, which leads to fatigue, eye problems, and, ultimately, a lack of use.
Nick also mentioned that, at some large mining operations, it's estimated that over 100 million dollars equivalent of gold is collected in the waste pile across a year, so every 1% is over a million dollars sitting there.
Unity set up a test rig in its Vancouver office to test its AR technology's effectiveness. They built a mock mine using a large sand pile and scattered golf balls throughout it. Using their AR tool, the operator could locate the golf balls and retrieve them with minimal waste. "The test results were impressive," Nick shared. "In 20 tries, we only missed one golf ball. And it's probably because the ball moved when we put it in the pile." He also informed me that the recovery success rate was closer to 65% without the AR tool. "You can imagine the impact of that accuracy difference in a large mine would be significant," Nick explained.
It was impressive to hear, but I wanted to know: how does it work?
David is clearly passionate about digital twins and explained it well. A digital twin is a digital representation of a real-world object, asset or even person. It can be used in the entertainment industry to create realistic digital characters, items or environments for films and video games. Still, it also applies to other industries such as energy, architecture, manufacturing and product design. Creating a digital twin also involves utilizing existing 3D models or capturing detailed 3D scans or photographs of an asset and then using that data to create a highly detailed, lifelike digital model.
However, digital twins have applications beyond just realism. In industry, they are being used to monitor and improve the efficiency of operations through connected IOT and prove ROI by testing and simulating new processes or technology virtually before ever spending a dollar on a real-world asset. It's interesting to see how this technology has the potential to solve problems and optimize systems, creating nearly endless possibilities, especially in a city like Calgary.
However, something else Nick brought up excited me the most. As someone more interested in the junk food and rides at the Calgary Stampede, I was excited when David and Nick spoke on theme park rides. They explained how creating digital twins of roller coasters could have big ramifications that I would never have imagined.
"Safety inspection," Nick began. "On rides, are the bolts properly tightened?" Nick explained that to train machine learning, you need a massive quantity of pictures of bolts tightened and not tightened. Taking all those pictures manually would be an incredible waste of time and likely wouldn't have enough variance.
He described how Unity's technology automates the process of identifying and labelling bolts, allowing for a more efficient inspection process. Using digital twins, they can create a virtual model of the rollercoaster and test if all the bolts are tight. It's a niche but important optimization that Unity has made with their digital twin technology. And the fun doesn't stop there.
"The other project, which is by far the coolest of them, is the theme park ride. It's a very large, very complicated ride being built."
According to Nick, the experience allows visitors to navigate the experience with some freedom and variance in pathing while gigantic robotic features approach and scare riders. The goal is to create a quasi-free-roam world with minutes of variance. Still, one of the challenges they faced was ensuring the safety bubble around the feature robots was close enough for the experience to be immersive but not too close to be dangerous. Unity's solution was to replicate all the sensors in a digital twin and measure the actual response times of sensors, robot mechanisms and the rider vehicle movement to create a new set of rules for the safety bubble.
"There's a bunch of challenges. Is it a fast enough response time on the model to say 'too close'? Right now, we're just under 100 milliseconds for the computer to decide. We haven't verified that that's fast enough yet."
It's fascinating to see the work that Unity is doing around the world and here in Calgary, and it's clear that they see the potential in the city as well. Nick shared with me why Unity chose to open a studio in Calgary.
"When we were given the opportunity to open a new studio, we were excited, but we didn't know it was going to be Calgary. At first, we thought it was going to be Toronto. But the city of Calgary reached out and offered to give us a tour. We went from looking at some expensive but frankly mediocre office buildings in Toronto to having the building owners personally show us around here in Calgary."
He explained the city's appeal for Unity and its team. "I think there are three things that make Calgary a great fit for us: the city itself, the business environment, and the people. There's a perception problem in some other Canadian cities, but Calgary overcomes it with strong business." Nick described Calgary as a city with great restaurants, cultural diversity and youthful energy.
"[Perception] isn’t solved by marketing alone. It has to build its own momentum. But it happens when things like government, city, and companies align. And that's where I think there's a lot of good people all pointed in the same direction right now."
Unity's technology has the potential to revolutionize multiple sectors, and it's exciting to think about the future possibilities of Unity's work in Calgary.