Johann Louw: Back to the future

Mining students are virtually transported to the proverbial coalface at the University of Pretoria’s Virtual Reality Centre, writes Leon Louw.

Johann, can you give us a bit of background about yourself and your work at the University?
I graduated in 1985 as a mining engineer from the University of Pretoria, after which I immediately started working in the mining industry. Before joining the University of Pretoria (UP), I was employed for two years by AEL Mining Services in Botswana.

How did the Virtual Reality Centre for Mine Design at the University of Pretoria come into existence?
The Head of the Mining Engineering Department (HOD), Prof. Webber-Youngman, visited the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, in 2012, where he saw and experienced its 3-D 360-degree cylinder. He shared the experience with the then CEO of Kumba Iron Ore, Chris Griffith. Chris realised the potential of such a facility and made funds available to build a similar facility at the Department of Mining Engineering at the University of Pretoria.Johann Louw web

A task team of knowledgeable individuals with the relevant expertise was established and sent to Australia with the instruction to reproduce that facility locally. A decision was made to build the facility with local expertise and local products. This resulted in significant savings, and allowed us to build a theatre with 47 seats and also enabled us to install 35 computers in the adjoining lecture hall.

Industry mine design software (Vulcan) was loaded onto these computers so that the mine design that the students do in their final year can be executed on industry software. These designs can then be shown in the theatre and/or the cylinder to understand and evaluate such designs.

When was the Centre launched and what are the objectives?
The University of Pretoria decided to build a brand new floor on top of the Mineral Sciences Building to host the Department of Mining Engineering and the new VR facility. The floor and the facility were completed and officially opened in August 2015.

Our slogan is ‘Making Vision Visible’. We take data and portray it in a visible form in 2-D or in 3-D. Our vision and mission are also in line with that of the University’s. We typically take a mine design, visualise it, and add value to these plans by inserting video clips of specific actions in the various workplaces. As an orientation and introduction tool, this facility is priceless. Eventually, the aim is to get all disciplines to use the facility and not just mining.

Can you give us a broad overview of the key features of the Virtual Reality Centre?
The VR Centre consists of a lecture hall, a 3-D theatre, and a 3-D 360-degree cylinder. Lectures take place in the lecture hall, where the students also complete their final-year design. The hall seats 68 students.

The 3-D theatre hosts 47 people and we can show just about any file format in 3-D with the aid of a program called Unity. This room is also used for normal lecturing and industry meetings.

The main attraction of the Centre, however, is the 10m-diameter, 4.2m-high cylinder. Here, an immersive 3-D 360-degree environment is created, where one is transported to that world and experiences the real layout and spatial experiences of a design of a mine, building, or any other type of environment.

What are the operational benefits of this technology?
One can now see in 3-D what is designed or planned. Mistakes and improvements can be identified before the initial steps to start a mine are initiated. If we can get any CAD type plan or design in the correct file format, or a scanned file of a workplace, it requires only a small adjustment to get it to be shown in 3-D. The hard work has been done by the design team already — we can texturise the design to make it look more believable.

In the future, visuals will be linked to financial programs, and then the financial and operations departments can look at the simulation from different angles, understand the operation, and improve where necessary.

How will this technology benefit mining engineering students specifically, and the mining industry in particular?
With each type of mine layout available in 3-D, the students easily familiarise themselves with all types of mine designs, methods, and layouts, without having to visit the different mines themselves. Virtual images can never replace a physical visit to a mine, but with the VR image in his/her head, when a student visits a mine, the understanding of what is above, below, or in front just falls in place. Students can also be transported to dangerous places and incidents while in the safety of a classroom. In addition, different scenarios can be presented to students without really creating such an event.

If a good enough picture is used, one completely removes language from the equation and the student needs to learn only the words while understanding the operation or visual image.

What is the value of the Centre and in which application specific to the mining industry can it be used?
The value of the Centre is the ability to portray and show one’s own work and design in 3-D in a very brief period. As we can host 47 people in the theatre at any time, it is an ideal facility to bring the design team and/or the executives in to see the mine they have planned and determine where the money should be spent. This happens before development takes place and without them ever actually visiting the real mine.

The Department of Mineral Resources and other departments related to mining can familiarise themselves with exactly what a specific mine looks like and get to terms with the different terminologies and descriptions of an operation.

In your view, has it improved the understanding of students compared to traditional studying methods?
Yes, for sure. Through the Centre a student can now immediately be ‘transported’ to different areas within a mine and receive an explanation as to how the system works. It is no longer just an idea in the student’s head — it is an image that s/he saw.

Can you tell us more about the sponsors and how the Centre has been of use to them?
The main sponsor is Kumba Iron Ore. Kumba also initiated the entire VR facility and new department floor project. We also have companies that rent the facility as a conference facility. The main supporter here is Aciel Geomatics. We would like to get a full-time sponsor from 2018.

Are established mining companies allowed to use the facility?
Everybody — not just mining companies — can use the facility. We can portray a specific company’s work to its employees. The entire facility (lecture hall, theatre, and cylinder) is rentable as a conference facility at a mere R2 500 per hour.

The main attraction of the Virtual Reality Centre at the University of Pretoria is the 10m-diameter, 4.2m-high cylinder, where an immersive 360-degree environment is created in 3-D.The 3-D theatre can seat 47 people, and just about any file format can be shown in 3-D with the aid of a program called Unity. The room is also used for normal lectures and industry meetings.The main attraction of the Virtual Reality Centre at the University of Pretoria is the 10m-diameter, 4.2m-high cylinder, where an immersive 360-degree environment is created in 3-D.The main attraction of the Virtual Reality Centre at the University of Pretoria is the 10m-diameter, 4.2m-high cylinder, where an immersive 360-degree environment is created in 3-D.Lectures take place in the lecture hall where students also do their final-year design.

*All photos courtesy of the University of Pretoria


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