Human factors engineering is a field that employs a systems methodology to fit tasks to human abilities and skills while boosting technology and human interfaces (Pene par. 1). It is aimed at abating errors and injury, and making the end products to be user-centered, and not equipment-centered. It identifies and uses information about human capabilities, mannerism, limitations, and other traits to the design of products, machines, jobs, tasks, systems and work environments for the productive, harmless and efficient human use (Rahman et al. 7). Human factors engineering is essential as it is cost-effective, reduces operational errors and increases chances of success. For an industrial engineering graduate with expectations of venturing into the technological world of production of virtual reality (VR) devices, VR platform, or VR applications, having a knowledge base of the human factors issues associated with virtual environments (VEs) is paramount. Individuals and firms with the ability to master the present and future VE technologies, and to invent novel devices which humans can use efficiently, comfortably, and safely are likely to dominate future global markets.
The twentieth century witnessed a chain of significant events in the advancement of interactive digital technologies. Explicitly, the speedy growth in computer graphics hardware and software enabled the launch of computer-generated imagery and animation, scientific visualization, wearable computing, and virtual reality (Stone 152). Virtual reality constitutes the use of computer graphics systems and display and interface devices to elicit the feeling of immersion in an interactive 3D computer-generated environment in which the virtual objects have a spatial presence (Aromaa and Väänänen 140). Conversely, virtual environments are systems that enhance communication between humans and computers. The interest in virtual reality is grounded in the embedded 3D structure of its environment, both in the way of display and interaction. Head-tracked stereoscopic displays present 3D depth signals that are superior to the ones provided with screens of 3D situations that occur on real workstations (Aromaa and Väänänen 140). Similarly, the position and orientation trackers fastened to the user’s hand give the ability to control objects in 3D space.
Recently, immersive technologies have become easily affordable and commercially feasible. These devices have found application in many fields, and other roles continue to be explored as new sophisticated and efficient innovations are developed. Some of the industries that have benefitted from VR include engineering, military, medicine, design, education, training, and entertainment. Human-factors experts utilize VR for the user-system analysis and design, scientists use VR to display big data, and stock market analysts employ VR to forecast changes in the market environment to achieve optimal profits, while the military uses VR to simulate war scenarios and training exercises (Tokela and İslerb 255).
The medical profession uses VR as training instruments, and in telemedicine. For instance, in teleradiology and telepathology, clinicians employ the digital viewing environment to make diagnostic decisions or interpretations based on the presented data (Tokela and İslerb 255). Also, the augmented reality Immersive system is exploited to design patient-specific skull implants. This VE device has been created to provide medical modelers with an operating environment which imitates the traditional workspace and has replaced the costly and elaborate old sculpting procedures like physical sculpting, stereolithography and mold making (Tokela and İslerb 255). The system is also useful in medical consultation, pre-operative arrangements, implant design, surgical simulation, postoperative assessment, education and global health emergencies (Tokela and İslerb 255).
As pertains to education, the accessibility of computer and internet to the learning institutions has provided exciting opportunities for teaching, learning, and the whole education process. Online learning software such as Moodle and 3D virtual environments promote interaction between educators, proprietors, and students and enable the use of multimedia tools and text to enhance learning activities (Tokela and İslerb 256). Now, historical events can be scanned and captured for preservation and distribution for educational purposes. For instance, the 3D scans of the Apollo 11 lunar module from Autodesk have enabled students in classrooms around the world to have an experience of expeditions to the moon (Tokela and İslerb 255). Similarly, industrial projects are designed with the aid of 3D software engines. In this context, the use of VEs provides a room for discussion, change, creation and delivery of better outcomes as it can easily be understood by non-engineering professionals. Virtual environments have the potential to provide an in silico field training for manufacturing, construction, oil and gas companies, giving the trainees an experience of the expected encounter in the actual field stations (Tokela and İslerb 256).
The business world has transformed into a service economy as products are now accompanied by a service component (Pene par. 2). Such an economy makes management to be a vital component. In the modern technological world, service companies use state-of-the-art innovations to improve the efficiency of their management and human resource systems. Some adventurous and risk-taking firms utilize second life VEs to recruit and interview potential staff, to establish job networks and attract the best talent. Furthermore, companies brand and market themselves using VR as witnessed by the existence of more interactive virtual establishments that envision company’s values, prospects, and strategies, which reflect on the organizational culture and significance (Pene par. 2). Firms have established virtual teams to communicate and relate to other firms or with their multinational subsidiaries.
Likewise, virtual reality allows designers to generate new devices for engaging entertainment that can provide a more intimate and emotional experience. Thus, VR is perceived as a next-generation storytelling platform and has already featured in some films and games, e.g., Stingray 3D game engine and Adr1ft (Pene par. 2). Also, VEs are applied in the built environment. Real-time rendering engines are significant in making designs. They enable architects to present their proposed projects better, simulate their designs to portray how those blueprints would work if they were erected and functional, and showcase their ideas to clients (Pene par. 2).
The information existing as building information models (BIM) is sent to a VR device to produce 3D images (Pene par. 3). The user gets a chance to walk through the 3D schemes created as if they are real and experiences the various aspects of those designs in high-quality visualization. This way, designers develop buildings that appropriately match the expectations and desires of their clients. Equally, designers and engineers in the automotive industry have employed virtual environments, e.g., VRED to create product showcases, design reviews and build virtual prototypes (Pene par. 3). The designers experience all the elements of the car model accurately since they feel they are sitting in the car instead of viewing it as a 2D image on a PC screen. Volkswagen and Volvo are some of the automobile manufacturers that have already adopted the technology (Pene par. 3).
Human Factors Methods
For VR technologies to be useful and well received by end users, they must have been designed with some human factors being considered (Qiu et al. 2). The relationship between the user and the system within the VEs is so intricate that it becomes impossible to separate human factors from design issues when aiming to attain the full potential of VE technology (Qiu et al. 2). That is so because it is the abilities and limitations of the user that often determine the effectiveness of virtual worlds. Knowledge of human-factors issues is essential in providing a rational foundation on which to direct future VE research efforts intended to advance the technology to better satisfy the needs of its users (Qiu et al. 2). The human-factors issues in VEs include human performance efficiency in virtual worlds, health and safety concerns, and the social impact of technology (Gao et al. 874). Firstly, suitable VEs are the ones that have the maximum efficiency of human task performance in them.
Human performance is predicted by elements like the navigational complexity of the VE, the measure of presence accorded by the virtual world, and the user’s performance on standardized tests (Gao et al. 874). It is influenced by various factors, e.g., task and user characteristics, integration aspects with multimodal interaction, design limitations imposed by the human motor and sensory physiology, and the possible requirement of new auditory, visual and haptic design metaphors exclusively matched to VEs (Gao et al. 874). Secondly, the protection of the health and welfare of users of the VR technology is essential. To neglect human elements in VEs result in discomfort, harm or injury to the users. The health and welfare elements that may affect users of VEs include both minor direct effects on tissues and significant body dysfunctions, e.g., trauma, cybersickness, and indirect physiological aftereffects and psychiatric instabilities (Gao et al. 874). Thirdly, the social impact of VR is another factor worth consideration. The misuse or abuse of VR can lead to many adverse social implications, e.g., promoting addiction and orchestrating violence. As such, there are many unanswered social questions about the probable psychological, character, personality development, social fitness, and behavioral effects that VE use might pose to individuals (Gao et al. 875).
The responsibility of addressing human factors issues in the VE product design and support lies with the human factors/ergonomics engineers. The traditional engineering practice was that of assembling tangible objects to produce complex machines. However, the main drawback of this approach which was based on the inflexible concept of analytical thinking was that flaws in the usability of these machines were often discovered belatedly to make socio-technical corrections (Faas et al. 140). Comparatively, ergonomics is based on the concept of design thinking and factors in technological possibilities, economic viability, and people’s requirements (Faas et al. 140). The human factors engineering practice is interwoven with the whole of the engineering process. It begins with the mission and activity evaluations during design and continues through to the manufacturing level with failure mode analyses, operational sequence examination, workload assessment and risk analyses (Faas et al. 140).
The functional requirements of a VE device are ascertained at the early design stages of a project (Stone 152). It is at this level that human factors engineering expertise is most useful. The functional requirements mold the usability of the product or system that is being designed. Designing in usability is an initial objective of any project. Nevertheless, where the right human factors proficiency and concern for the users and operators of the device were overlooked at the start, specialists can propose redesigning of completed products which consumers can’t use efficiently or are uncomfortable with (Stone 152). Evaluating a product design concept is a critical step in the concept development. The main aim of evaluation is to decide whether to initiate the concept utilization, iterate the idea further or to discontinue it. Assessment helps to identify reception of the early product prototypes among the intended user group and to evaluate the design from a human factors stance (Stone 152).
The users’ performance and preferences are based on their answers to the final questionnaire, regarding their experience in VE designs. A group of unbiased representatives of the target user’s segment evaluates the concept in the VR environment. Several sets of users may guide further design modifications and are selected according to age group, medical condition, culture, and geography. In addition to the use of questionnaires (data collection technique), there are other numerous human factors methods that virtual engineers can employ to evaluate VR technologies. These include task analysis, cognitive task analysis, charting, human error identification, situation awareness measurement, mental workload measurement, team performance analysis, interface analysis, system design, and performance time assessment techniques (Faas et al. 142). For example, interface analysis methods are useful in assessing aspects of HVEI like usability, user satisfaction, layout, labeling, error, and the controls and displays used (Faas et al. 143). Under interface analysis category, some methods are also available – usability assessment approaches, error analysis procedures, and general interface assessment techniques (Faas et al. 143). All these processes aim at reducing or excluding the necessity of training to promote usability.
Industry Assessment of the Importance of Human Factors
The complicated process of design and virtual prototyping of the manufacturing workplaces is characterized with a high level of human factors, and these are improved by various VE tools – HMD, tracking and gesture recognition systems, and haptic devices (Rahman et al. 8). In any industry, human factor engineering has some significant benefits. The first is to improve the effectiveness and efficiency with which work and other operations are achieved (Rahman et al. 8). Ergonomics lead to increased ease of use, improved productivity and reduced errors. The second importance is to boost some appropriate human values, including enhanced safety, increased comfort, reduced fatigue and stress, higher user acceptance, better job satisfaction, and improved quality of life (Rahman et al. 8).
Thirdly, human factors play a role in the designing of methods and operation, system and interface, product and equipment, task and job, workstation, work arrangement and working environment, and information (Rahman et al. 8). Similarly, it helps to reduce production cost by eliminating the process of redesigning complete products to make them user-centered. Human factors engineering has ensured continuity of VE technology. In fact, the survival of any technological innovation rests upon its ergonomic quality since equipment that is perceived to be unsafe cannot be manufactured further. Poor human factors application in the virtual reality industry and all manufacturing firms results in less production output, more lost time, higher physiological cost, higher risk of accidents, higher employee turnover, increased chances of error, more fatigue and higher injury rate (Rahman et al. 10).
Personal Assessment of the Human Factors Methods
As stated above, there are numerous human factors methods for the evaluation of HVEI. I assess that whichever technique ergonomics specialists decide to employ, they must consider the task at hand, i.e., whether it is an assessment and evaluation of the existing activity, the design lifecycle of a process or a system, or analysis of performance in a novel and current environments. Additional features that are worth considering in the choice of a human factors method are the benefits and drawbacks of each approach. A suitable technique should be easy to use, require little training, of low cost, be structured, offer a direct assessment of the VE system or device under analysis, provide immediately useful data, and be reliable, valid and exhaustive.
This paper has explored the relevant information on the various human factors issues relating to VEs, the role of VE technology in the society, the different human factors methods applied in the VE tools design, production and support, and the importance of ergonomics in the industry. The recent high rate of technological advancement has generated the need for considering ergonomics early in the design and development stage, and in an orderly approach. Because of the intricacy of many new and modified systems, it is often impossible to make adjustments after they have been produced. Also, the cost of redesigning has been frequently exorbitant. Therefore, the initial designs of virtual systems, products, equipment, and environment must satisfactorily consider human factors.
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