PORTSMOUTH — Unitil Corp. is testing a virtual reality training tool that gives technicians experience dealing with dangerous situations.
At the company’s gas operations office in Portsmouth, technicians in various stages of their careers are testing out the VR equipment from Gas Technology Institute (GTI) in Des Plaines, Ill., throughout the month of February.
Bob Allen is the supervisor of technical training and quality management at Unitil. He said the VR system has real-time scenarios that focus on emergency response, leak investigation and inside meter inspection.
“It really puts you, without being in a hazardous situation, it puts you in as a player in a real-world situation. You’re able to go through those motions and create that muscle memory of what you’re supposed to do as a first responder to make the area safe, the people safe, and then secure the asset and shut it down,” Allen said.
Allen said there will always be lots of on-the-job training for employees, as well as PowerPoint and classroom training, but he thinks the VR system might be a nice additional tool in the company’s toolbox.
Allen said an added benefit of the VR system is that people from the Maine and Massachusetts teams can train with New Hampshire employees. Typically, they only see each other at annual drills and large-scale emergencies, so this will help build teamwork and better communication skills for Unitil employees, Allen said.
Allen said he has been getting positive feedback and suggestions from employees. One technician suggested GTI create a cityscape in addition to the residential neighborhood scenario that exists.
Alec O’Meara is a media relations manager for Unitil. He checked out the VR technology earlier this month.
“It’s stunning. It’s amazingly immersive,” O’Meara said.
Employees use controllers in each hand to grab tools, fix problems and knock on doors to talk to residents, but the technology is easy to figure out, even for people in their 60s, O’Meara said.
“This isn’t just for the gamer generation,” O’Meara said.
O’Meara said Unitil paid $7,000 to test the VR software and hardware. No decisions have been made yet about whether or not it will purchase the equipment.
GTI is a not-for-profit independent technology organization that has nearly 500 products, 750 licenses and more than 1,300 associated patents.