Lockheed Martin’s space systems Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL) manager Darin Bolthouse helping visitors in the Cave understand working in virtual reality. April 3, 2017, Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)
It was like stepping into a science fiction movie.
A life-size holographic engine floated in midair. Using a hand-held control, Darin Bolthouse slowly rotated the engine and pulled out thrusters and propulsion systems to set aside, as journalists wearing 3D glasses watched.
He gave his pair of 3D glasses, which included motion tracking, to a visitor. She walked into the engine, an eerie sensation despite the engine not physically being there. Kneeling, she looked up to see the bottom of the holographic machinery. The surrounding journalists gasped as their view of the engine changed with hers.
The 3D hologram, which was displayed in a designated enclosure Bolthouse referred to as The Cave, is part of the technology being developed and used in the Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory, one of multiple labs Lockheed Martin Space Systems showed off to local and national journalists Monday during a tour of its Littleton facility.
A visitor wearing a virtual reality headset “walked around” another engine, examining it. To onlookers, he circled empty space. To him, it appeared as if he could insert a bolt on the holographic engine using a motion sensor-enabled screwdriver. Working with the virtual engine, he could determine whether a mechanic could reach a loose bolt with ease.
Both the 3D image and VR system allow engineers to continually evaluate their designs, discovering potential problems faster than if they examined only 3D drawings — and before parts are machined and assembled. Aerospace and automotive manufacturing companies are among those that have pioneered industrial uses for VR, which often is touted solely for its entertainment potential.
For Lockheed Martin, the technologies save time and money.
“We save over $10 million each year with the use of the lab and the problems that we solve,” said Bolthouse, who manages the CHIL lab. Rather than discovering engineering problems after building a physical prototype — and needing to re-create the item over and over to get it right — engineers can use the lab to uncover and correct the problems using virtual models.
“Can you imagine, here you are trying to meet a launch date and things aren’t fitting right?” said John Karas, vice president of Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. “It allows you to do more complex things in more efficient times.”
The technology extends beyond solitary objects to include facilities. Employees can scan a room into a VR program and then put on headsets to “see” how many satellites they may have to move to roll a spacecraft through a building.
Lockheed Martin’s space systems software engineer Joshua Griffith working on a holographic engine in the Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL) during a virtual reality demonstration. April 3, 2017, Littleton, Colorado.
The CHIL lab was built in 2010 with a $5 million initial investment. It’s one of the largest VR labs in the aerospace industry, a Lockheed Martin spokesman said, and has evolved as Microsoft, Facebook and other companies have entered the market and refined the technologies used there.
Virtual creations can be sent to Lockheed Martin’s 3D printing lab for prototyping. Engineers can build custom parts or tools in weeks instead of the months it might take for an outside company to manufacture them, said Brian O’Connor, vice president of production operations.
Lab employees are working to create a shared VR environment — think: multiplayer video game — where people in different places can put on headsets and “enter” the same space. This could allow heightened collaboration and greater involvement of customers, who could watch the work on a computer or tablet.