Research into virtual environments that allow for narrative simulations that address the complexity of working underground has been constrained by its ability to create adequately realistic and immersive scenarios.

iCASTS is a world-first fully immersive and audio-visually realistic environment that allows for the recreation of complex underground mining scenarios. It provides a platform for research into prototyping the types of narrative and visualisation that can aesthetically address the multi-faceted nature of underground technology and mining events. Combining a unique visual interaction design and industrial grade custom wireless keyboard interface, it allows up to 30 users to navigate through seven kilometres of an underground 360 degree tunnel labyrinth and interact with a large number of scenarios.

The significance of the system is attested by: a) exhibition at APPEA Conference, Australia’s leading Oil and Gas industry exposition; b) winner of the world leading Gold IDEA award for interactive design, 2009 (USA), the judges noting “A thoughtful approach to immersive learning… The potential applications are a class apart"; and c) cited 15 times in major news reports including BBC.

In 2008, iCASTS’ suite of VR simulations and platforms were commercialised for the Australian Coal Services Pty Ltd for $7.2M as a permanent training simulator housed in custom-designed facilities across five sites, using the AVIE, AVIE_SC and iDOME visualisation platforms.

iCASTS – CCTEG was adapted in 2013 and developed for the Shenyang Research Institute of China Coal Technology & Engineering Group (CCTEG) for a $1M commercialisation. Designed in collaboration with local architects, builders, designers, mine engineers and project managers, it saw extensive on-site consultation, installation and post-installation testing and facilitation in Fushun ensured implementation of a custom fit-out. The adaptation of the system delivered highly realistic 3D models of a customised underground mine environment in which a wide range of hazard and technology scenarios could be simulated.

Project Details

Key characteristic differentiators for this iCinema technology include:

  • A range of 360 degree immersive projection platforms
  • Capability to be interactively used by groups rather than just one person at a time (a limitation of head-mounted display VR solutions)
  • Unprecedented level of realism and immersion
  • Trainees can recognise and train in their own mine environments
  • Continual build-up of a database of actual mine layouts
  • Image as opposed to text-based training delivers potential to be easily adapted for overseas operations such as in China or Latin America

The interaction device was developed with assistance by Tiller Design, a professional product development team. It consists of a central control console and a 3D inertia hand-held wand that allows the user to navigate and travel through virtual environments as well as control physical environmental attributes such as lighting, sound and playback of a simulation. Both console and wand are intuitive, immediately accessible but importantly do not distract from the virtual environment experience. The wand allows the user to interact directly with the environment by selecting items, moving objects, and simulating basic tasks that would be done in the real-world environment. The console gently removes itself from the environment by lowering the lighting and brightness of controls depending on the status of the training program. Together, the console-wand combination provides an ergonomically pleasant interactive experience.

Initial introduction to the immersive environment through the virtual reality training scenarios is an uncanny realistic experience. Driving along in an underground mine vehicle, for instance, you can see in all directions as in real vision simply depending on where you look. You feel you can reach out and touch the roof bolts. You can manoeuvre past static vehicles or walk up to operating continuous miners. And in the process, you can interactively learn where you should or should not go – and to recognise signs of danger in particular situations.

Similarly, in an open-cut simulated environment at the wheel of a giant haul truck, you can learn to manoeuvre beside an electric shovel for loading and be alert to how easy it is to miss spotting people or personnel vehicles from a driving position several metres high.

These virtual experiences enable users to begin to visualise and recognise complex mining situations, to build up knowledge of procedures and skills and to undergo training in a safe and forgiving environment.

iCASTS is currently utilised in four locations nationally and one location in China.

Dr Phil Stothard, Chairman of the International Mining VR Group and Senior Research Fellow at the UNSW School of Mining Engineering, is responsible for creating the interactive group-based virtual reality training scenarios for Coal Services that will run on the iCAST systems. “UNSW and CSPL are leading the world in this field,” he said. “There is no question that these technologies have the potential to save lives and their full potential will be fully realised through further domestic and international collaboration.”

Use of these systems provides mines with key cost savings in addition to their ability to provide enhanced safety training:

  • It allows training to take place at any time of day.
  • It reduces down-time on taking equipment out of production for training purposes.
  • This reduces training impact on production levels.
  • Enables faster start-up with better prepared staff
  • Being highly familiar with equipment and its operation through the training simulation means that operators are far less likely to damage multi-million dollar equipment once they start in the actual operating environment – a huge saving on maintenance and repair.
  • Improved knowledge and skills reduce injuries and increase productivity.
  • Improved risk assessment tools
  • Improved competency increases staff morale
  • Workforce has high level of competence before entering real environment
  • Maintains a record of personal assessment and achievements
  • Identifies deficiencies in personnel training without risk
  • Trains away unsafe practices
  • The progressive improvement of the technology and delivery of novel interactive content continues through interfaculty collaborative research.

Project Directors: Dennis Del Favero, Jeffrey Shaw

Programmers: Matthew McGinity, Ardrian Hardjono, Jared Berghold, Alex Kuptsov, Marc Chee, Robin Chow, Xin Guan

Project Funding: UNSW University Capital Infrastructure Grants Scheme, UNSW School of Mining Engineering

  • Shenyang Research Institute, Fushun, 2012
  • APPEA Conference, Convention & Exhibition Centre, Brisbane, 2010
  • Mines Rescue Pty Ltd Australian Facilities in Woonona, Argenton, Lithgow & Singleton, 2008
  • Simulation – Maximising Organisational Benefits at the SimTech Conference, Convention & Exhibition Centre, Melbourne, 2008

Project Directors: Dennis Del Favero, Jeffrey Shaw

Lead Software Engineer: Matthew McGinity

Software and Hardware Engineering: Ardrian Hardjono, Jared Berghold, Alex Kuptsov, Marc Chee, Robin Chow, Xin Guan

Project Co-ordination and Management: Damian Leonard, Ardrian Hardjono, Volker Kuchelmeister, Densan Obst, Kate Dennis, Sue Midgley, Joann Bowers

This project was financially supported under the UNSW University Capital Infrastructure Grants Scheme: AVIE and the UNSW School of Mining Engineering