Underground construction enters the virtual reality universe

As published in Underground Infrastructure

As I zoomed down the zipline, I let go over open space – and felt like I dropped, even though my feet had never even left the ground. That’s the magic of virtual reality, and of the Ditch Witch Metaverse.

“There’s no business need for the zipline, no reason to have it,” Ditch Witch Marketing Communications Manager Sean Hubbard said. “We put it in for the trade show.”

That trade show was CONEXPO in March, where Ditch Witch debuted its new Metaverse augmented reality experience.

“We wanted something new,” Hubbard said. “Something cool and unique that nobody else in our industry is doing. There are several manufacturers that have virtual reality training, but nobody’s in the Metaverse yet.”

Ditch Witch is among the first, but it’s still in the beginning stages, he said.

“This is Phase One, and it’s interesting because we’re still learning what Phase Two could potentially be,” Hubbard said. “We’re testing this out with some customers and talking to our dealers about how they can see this fitting into their business and what their customers want – so it’s really, truly going to be a customer-driven feature.”

While there’s no practical reason to have put the zipline in, there’s also no practical reason to take it out, so it may or may not remain when the Ditch Witch Metaverse does transition into the next phase, he said.

“We’re taking it to a trade show, right?” he said. “Nobody’s heard of the Ditch Witch Metaverse, nobody knows what this is, so we didn’t know what the reaction would be – let’s make sure there’s something fun to do.”

Another fun feature was a chance to virtually drive the company’s Super Witch. Inside the Metaverse’s VR showroom, the “tricked-out, souped-up Ditch Witch RT95,” according to the company’s website, has been virtually rendered to scale.

“I describe it as a monster truck with a chainsaw on the back of it,” Hubbard said of the Super Witch, which was designed to be a marketing tool and is not for sale. “It does wheelies, and that trencher on the back – it will trench 100 feet a minute. A trencher of this size with this frame, but not the engine, typically trenches about 15 to 20 feet per minute.”

The Super Witch is incredibly popular, and at CONEXPO, the Metaverse offered a chance for people to put on the VR headset, pick up the corresponding hand controllers, and find themselves inside the cab.

“It would drop them in this big stadium and there’s a crowd cheering, fireworks are going off; it’s like a hype video,” Hubbard said. “And you go around and race it, using your left hand to steer and your right hand to control the throttle, and you have a minute to go around and collect as many coins as you can.”

That virtual reality competition was a huge success, with more than 1,000 people “driving” the Super Witch at CONEXPO, Hubbard said.

Along with that success, feedback so far for the Ditch Witch Metaverse, even in this early phase, has been positive, he said. While Hubbard thinks work on Phase Two might begin in the next few months, he hesitated to give a timeline because it’s still early and they’re still gathering feedback.

“That’s what we’re trying to talk to customers and dealers about,” he said. “We have the base model of this: ‘Where do you want to go with it?’ And I don’t know what that answer is yet.”

Wave of the future

While that may not be clear right now, the view is very much toward the future. A lot of children and teens today, including Hubbard’s own kids, play video games and are comfortable with VR, the controls and how it all works.

“That’s our next generation of not only employees, but also our operators,” Hubbard explained. “A lot of the equipment is going this way where it’s more technologically advanced and the kids of today are just more familiar with it. We’re trying to gear a lot of the things that we do toward that next generation, and we feel like this is a perfect fit.”

Meta, the technology company tied to Facebook, was chosen because it was a platform they could build in. Metecs, a third-party company based in Houston, is the developer behind the Ditch Witch Metaverse, Hubbard said.

While he and I began and ended our meeting through Microsoft Teams for interview purposes, we also each donned the VR headset and met as avatars in the Ditch Witch Metaverse, and in the virtual lobby: a two-story room with twin ramps curving up each side toward the second story, where there was a conference table spread with blueprints and a view above the clouds.

Our avatars took seats at the conference table where I was able to look at the blueprints, which are for some of the company’s real equipment manufactured in Oklahoma and Ohio.

“Just like in the real world, you can imagine anything being on this table, and you and I can pick it up, look at and interact with it,” he stressed. “It’s a real meeting space in the virtual world.”

Visible from the conference table, across the room on the first floor were four colorful doorways resembling portals. Each led into the virtual showroom of a sister company including American Augers, Trencor and Subsite.

The beauty of Metaverse and of virtual reality is that it can shrink the world, thus offering an innovative new way to connect with clients, Hubbard observed.

An ultimate goal is to create virtual models of everything the four brands make across all product lines, he pointed out.

For example, if a customer across the world wants to see the American Augers DD240T drill but can’t attend a trade show and the local dealer doesn’t have one, the customer can meet with a representative in the Metaverse and virtually walk around the drill to see it. Next, the customer can teleport to a virtual job site and meet with the training department to learn how to operate the equipment safely, effectively and efficiently. Then, if the client decides to purchase one, their avatar can teleport to a dealership lobby to meet with a salesperson.

“And you, wherever you are in the world, have just purchased a piece of equipment from Ditch Witch that you’ve never seen it in real life,” Hubbard said. “I think that’s the endgame, though we’re a long way from that.”

While not every product has yet been incorporated into the Metaverse, the DD240T, which launched right before CONEXPO, is already modeled in the American Augers showroom, which resembles a job site. That’s what Hubbard is most excited about in Phase One.

“That is the first real-life potential application,” he added. “That’s the first glimpse of what this could actually be.”

As it turns out, there are many potential applications for augmented reality, including safety, training and product support. Hubbard has talked to multiple other employees in different departments and the consistent response has been “I can see how that would work in my department.”

There is a learning curve with the headset technology, and with that can come technical difficulties. But despite the unknowns, the potential upside is the driving factor for Ditch Witch.

The American Augers showroom resembles a virtual job site and offers a virtual rendering of the company’s new drilling rig.
The headset is not a requirement, however. It does offer a more immersive experience, but a meeting in the Metaverse can be conducted through a computer screen, similar to playing a video game without virtual reality, so there are still many possibilities. The Ditch Witch Metaverse is early, Hubbard observed, but significantly ahead of the industry curve.

“In virtual reality, as a whole, we can’t think big enough of what the implications are for this,” he said. “This is the future and we’re here, so it’s kind of exciting to be breaking into the new world.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Ditch Witch, (800) 654-6481, ditchwitch.com

Originally appeared on ForConstructionPros.com

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