As told by the inventor, Vince Sunter – so it’s the detailed version!
“Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” –Napoleon Hill
1995: Surprisingly, it was not some horrific event in my life that was behind this idea. Rather, in 1995 I was travelling as a passenger through the small inland town of Rutherford with a colleague who was driving a Toyota 4WD Landcruiser. On a straight dual lane section with unbroken concrete median strip we were in the left lane. A car displaying red P plates, with two young men in it, came out of a side street and turned left (only choice), directly in front of us.
Our vehicle lurched uncomfortably across the right lane and came to rest on the median strip, nothing hit and no damage. And no apparent recognition from the young men of their close call as they just proceeded off down the road, not anything particularly notable, not in a hurry or whatever. The driver had simply not looked before pulling out in front of 2t of Toyota’s finest, complete with shiny bull-bar, bearing down on them. I got to wondering, if the situation was reversed, what needed to happen for that young driver to become the person that had just avoided a probable fatality.
I made most of my stupid driving mistakes in my late teens, including one where I had managed to make a totally bonafide mistake all of my own doing when I looked, but didn’t see, and pulled out straight into the path of a passing car. None of the 6 people in my vehicle were hurt, nor the two in the other vehicle, but it was one heck of a bang and made a big mess, totally my fault. I have also had a couple of other unhappy hits getting caught up in other people’s mistakes, maybe with a bit of contributory negligence, but haven’t had a car accident since I turned 20 – in fact I have saved a few since then! I do well remember I used to drive to NSW Uni (Randwick) from the Blue Mtns (Faulconbridge) during the week as a 17 yo and I thought I would “never” get used to driving in city traffic as it was so hard and draining to pay such close attention to everything going on. This was before any accidents.
I reflected on the above and concluded the answer was to put people in simulated no-win situations and that would shock them into learning something the easy way. My own lads were late teens themselves at this stage so of course it is something you contemplate, but at least I was in their lives and could give them the wisdom of the mistakes I made. And the choice of making the same ones or a brand new set! Fortunately they chose new ones, and all smaller by comparison, so a good outcome. Not to say I haven’t made mistakes since as I sure have. Rather I am very quick to see them for what they are and am very tolerant of mistakes in others when they occur. If there was no hit we’re all good – everybody learnt something; adding any kind of righteous indignation / aggro only devalues the lessons taken away. I don’t care how much it was their fault and (blah blah), I could have seen it sooner / not put myself where “stupid” was a serious probability of rearing its head, or being surprised when it does…
I have been involved with several traumatic situations over the years where I had been a first responder, purely by luck of circumstances. People I thought I had saved later died in hospital. Others did OK, but I don’t really remember them as it is “job done!”. I got thinking about the road toll and initially started this simulator idea from the perspective that “One’s too many”. I later realised that is in the realm of “magical thinking”, although there are a bunch of bureaucrats that are saying zero is achievable but I don’t see that happening with anything like our current systems of personal transport. I prefer to deal with realities and understand the complex underlying human capacity to err, or not, and try to influence the factors that can change the outcomes in a credible, material way. Plus it is a fact that humans will do risky things, eg in anger. So if I can get them angry / annoyed in a simulation event, then present them with a situation needing a cool head to sort and they stuff it, maybe they will make better choices when they realise they are angry in future. Same deal for young men and testosterone effects – set ’em up for a fail. Don’t get me started on the choices young women make… etc. It all comes down to the lesson plans, which is a sizable body of work to do.
1996: I looked at simulator designs of the day and thought they were all too complex and expensive, plus the body of knowledge around how humans related to simulators said there was a lot of guesswork going on and nobody really had a good fix on what worked. There was definitely a lot of research happening and I corresponded with some top names in academia at the time. I realised what mostly was happening with simulators was you were taking a human and “doing stuff” to them, so it better be stuff that works from the human’s perspective or forget it. Generally simulator design was around making better machines that humans could use, not better machines for humans to use. So I came up with the concept of geometrically fixing the centre of rotation of the “imaginary” forces – I just wasn’t sure if that should be in the centre of the body mass to minimise “throwing” effects, or the head to minimise spacial disorientation effects, or even the steering wheel as an ‘action centre’; based on my reading at the time, I picked the body centre and have stuck to it. I also reasoned that direct whole of body forces (bumps / vibration) should be generated separately to be experienced directly in real time, as they would normally.
Back then, I saw the big challenge was going to be getting a video feed that worked; I thought doing the simulator well and economically was the easy bit! I had the intent to hire 3 – 5 video cameras and mount them on the roof of a car and drive around suburbia collecting 10’s of km of video, which stitching software existed to make a large panorama of surround footage. Conceptually I would present a video to people and then zoom in or out to match acceleration and braking (to a point), and turning was simply panning the video (although they better go where the video goes or suddenly the world would run out!). But I still didn’t quite know how to tie it all together into lesson plans etc. I did however drive a few streets and stick precisely to the same position on the road and set ONE video camera at different orientations so I could make some trial stitched footage; that worked!
1998: When Windows 1998 came out and we had the latest DirectX, and now videos could be superimposed on other videos as moving sprites, I thought there was a pathway to kick down the main remaining technical hurdles to a real system. So now I could superimpose kids running out or a car backing out of a driveway in random locations, plus lots of other similar situations. And use the “competent driver core group” approach to set competency/ performance standards. Beauty, time to get serious! I researched VR head gear and, may be a surprise to modern headset owners, but there were lots of VR headsets around in the late 90’s too!
I tried a couple of headsets and quickly found out I was a prime candidate for motion sickness myself. Most notably a FPS (first person shooter) called Doom which I felt sick for hours after a 10 min session, so I am a great guinea pig! Later research showed my issues were more about how the VR content was displayed, and a lot of easy to avoid mistakes were being made back then. Regardless, I resolved that the display mechanism itself wasn’t that important, as long as sufficient immersion was there. Augmented reality glasses existed in the 90’s and I thought they may have been a good all-round solution, as was surrounding the driver with vdu screens. There was the important matter of rear view mirrors to be dealt with, which was a bit unclear back then. But good miniature head mounted cameras and head tracking devices existed in the 90’s, and that is how it was going to tie together.
Time to get some help I figured and spoke to many people – lots of interest but nothing of substance. On 24-06-98 I put a detailed proposal to the then RTA Driver Development Dept Mgr, Mr David Hill after very supportive and helpful statements from Mr Ron Chisholm, a Dept officer. This report was titled “Accident Rate Reduction Strategy via Development of Multiple Driver Training Simulator Capacity – Preliminary Feasibility Assessment” and was a concise 13 pages with a 2 page cover letter and about 100 pages of Appendices covering the various technical products and software contemplated at the time. My basic premise was that if you start drip feeding a project like this with a few $k pa it is likely to reap serious dividends over a few years, and I provided detailed budget costing of how it was likely to play out.
In short, the RTA of the time wanted to buy mature technology and they saw an R&D style of approach as inappropriate use of public funding. For me, I took it that it was a tool and up to me to demonstrate it could be done. Given my financial situation at the time, not a chance! So I parked it. But it proved to be very useful having condensed all my thoughts at the time and, whilst things have changed a lot since then, I still rely on that document for guidance as it really was a well configured overall plan to full implementation! I figured solving the software aspects was something I could do cheaply over time and have another go at the project later. But that report detailed the exact approach I have ended up taking, with a couple of key technical changes. So far (as at Feb 2017) I am beating the budget for direct costs, but way over for hours taken! Which is a good thing actually as the prototype being built now is far more nuanced than the originally conceived device.
2005: By now I have done enough trialing with my treasured stitched footage to realise the whole video-stitching thing was going to be a flop; after a couple of useful gimmicky experiences, it simply wasn’t going to be a pathway to get the behaviour changing results needed. Windows 2000 and ME releases hadn’t been helpful but XP had potential, so I started looking again. By now I realised the only way this will work is to generate a mathematical world and have people maneuver around in that. I approached Sega to see if they were interested in doing something and surprisingly got a flat no.
There were several public domain virtual worlds “out there” by then and a thriving community interested in them. Quality was a bit marginal but maybe OK. Alternately I didn’t think it would be too hard to sort something out with one of the major commercial players producing car racing games in urban environments who were releasing quality digital products that would have been suitable. So I gathered lots of articles and started to talk to people again; clearly there was a lot of interest in seeing this sort of thing happen. The NRMA of the day were very keen and helpful, despite that a few years earlier they had been split into separate groups (although 2016 enquiries found that spirit totally vanished). However I felt true support may be coming (it wasn’t…!) and I set about doing detailed design.
I had taken every opportunity over the intervening years to get into any simulator I saw, either as amusement park rides or more technical ones, of which the Bosch ESP car control simulator at the 2005 Sydney Motor Show (see pics here and here) was a stand-out (finally – after waiting 8 hours for the thing to be fixed as it seemingly broke down on my arrival after I had just travelled to Sydney purely for the purpose of getting on it!). The Bosch simulator didn’t move much but was very realistic. So I was pretty OK that simulators were going to be highly effective devices, but first I had to prove to myself that the whole thing was viable from first principles. So, out with the Subaru (WRX) in the back streets of Newcastle, on 16/10/05 per my notes, doing things like driving around a large vacant roundabout to establish what were reasonable maximum performance speeds, then parked in the middle and used a surveyors tape to get the radius etc. Same deal with stopping and acceleration distances – time and measure, repeat and check. With wry amusement, I now note I did this three days before I went to the Motor Show; guess I was already pretty convinced and the ESP demo was just the icing on the cake!
The calculated tilt angles needed to generate the required “imaginary” acceleration / cornering forces were very do-able. I set about figuring out exactly how this thing might be built and on 30/10/05 I had my first fully developed detailed 2D AutoCAD concept drawing. Whilst technically quite different to what I have built today, every element of today’s prototype is in that earlier drawing, and also described in the 1998 report. So I was ready to take up one of the various half – promises I had been given to support the venture. But, short story, nothing happened!
2011 Sept: Because of my ongoing work in the motorcycling community, and specific participation in NSW Motorcycle Council, I got to spend some time with Mr Duncan McRae, a highly regarded RTA officer. I put to Duncan my then consolidated thoughts on the whole topic to see what he thought might be the best pathway forward, and if it would be a worthwhile endeavour anyway. Whilst it is fair to say Duncan never did give me a direct opinion (that’s a public servant for you!), the very useful thing that happened is I coalesced all my thoughts around the detailed implementation aspects, some of which I was not happy with so I started thinking about them some more.
Unfortunately I had some surprising and extremely disruptive personal life circumstances happening from 2010 which lasted until Dec 2012, so this whole topic got little attention. Plus it turned out the (unrelated) engineering project business I co-own was about to go through an industry wide drought of income, not broken in any consequential way until Dec 2015.
2014 Oct: Oculus released the Rift headset DK2 developer kit and I just had to have one, as this looked like the tech that was really going to solve the visual implementation issues. In mid Nov it arrived and was a pretty impressive piece of kit. So now I regarded that all the pieces for success were in place. Oh, except funds of course, but nothing I could do about that right then, although there was a plan brewing….
My business partner and I in Calsun Projects Pty Ltd had developed and patented a method to do a step change improvement in mining throughput / productivity while work was light. We expected that would eventually become a decent source of funds, which I was happy to sink whatever I made into the driver simulator project.
2016 July: Calsun’s mining innovation has just had its first “proof-of-concept” install and things are going very well – the technology is performing better than expected. I am seeing a little cash and thinking if I don’t give this driving simulator a red hot go now it will never happen, in which case my commitment to myself was to publish everything I know to the web and encourage others to take it on. So I started.
This time, instead of talking to many potentially interested parties, I decided I just needed to push through to build a prototype that worked well and then we had something real to focus on. I could do this thing. I had also realised a great big trap of this sort of endeavour was to take on partners that one is beholden to as you can be sure there will come a day when their need for shareholder returns exceeds society’s capacity / desire to pay for the use of the thing and it is a struggle from there to get the societal outcomes sought. The Wiggles got this stuff right, and I will take a leaf from their copybook. I had looked closely at the budget and concluded $30 / session was going to be doable – I later revised this to $35 / session as I concluded two operators needed to be present at all times, and one can do oversight activities with the other doing classroom prep presentations before the sim session and similar. But I don’t want greedy corporate shareholders deciding they want 100% returns and doubling the price or anything like that. This needs to be a stable profitable business, but a gold mine it ain’t – other than for the lives and injuries saved anyway! If there is an entertainment spinoff that charges a premium that would be fine, but I want the core purpose of driver training to be highly effective AND accessible, in all the meanings of the word!
I do realise that down the track having a “big” partner on board will be useful for all concerned, not so much a commercial partnership but more a win-win alliance. So I approach my old favourite NRMA. I was asking for a token contribution of a wreck, but what I really want is their ability to provide useful support when trying to get RMS / politicians to support implementation related activities, plus it will be a big deal for publicity for whomsoever does provide support of this kind as you couldn’t buy the goodwill that will come from this venture being successful. However NRMA (IAG really) said a flat no, and I made absolutely sure that top mgt were the ones making the decision, so they have burnt this bridge, but avoided a $500 max donation I guess. Wow eh…
2016 Aug 10th: So I find out how auctions work, and Pickles has one coming up on 10th Aug so by 9am I am the proud owner of a mica blue Feb 2014 Mazda 2 DEII Hatchback write-off that had a serious rear-ender on July 5th. It was a country car owned by a young lady from Maitland area, kept very clean and recently serviced, until that fateful day – but no blood anywhere so I guess she was OK. Coincidentally I was booked into hospital for a colonoscopy later that day, due to arrive at 3:30pm.
It was unseasonably warm, but I could drink water ’til midday and the car was released at 11am so I stripped the sides off my 8’x5′ trailer (a useful leftover from owner-building our house in 2008-09) and collected it. After some effort I got the thing secured in the garage where the motorcycle used to be and was ready to be taken to hospital where I arrived on time but quite dehydrated despite drinking 1.5 litres before midday. There were no adverse side-effects from being dehydrated, and the bonus was I was later told my Crohns of 12 years had gone into total remission as there was now no sign of it.
What happens after you put a thing like this in the shed is you start taking bits off it, the less there are the easier everything becomes. Getting down to just the cabin assembly brings the first big decision, and substantially changed technical direction. Everything to date I had done was about a driver seat only situation, with the passenger side removed as obviously that is where one of the pivot bearings needed to go. I would make it up in the virtual world, not quite sure how. But, now I am doing it, there comes this question:
Where to cut? Obviously you want to keep the console, so it is somewhere in the passenger side floor – I always intended to put a ply wall frame there and maybe paint the other half of the interior on it. But what happens to the windshield. And the stuff mounted on the firewall / in the cabin? OK there ARE answers to all this stuff, but what I MUST do is build something that is ultimately simple and repeatable, and all these answers add up to “special tasks”.
So I change direction somewhat and decide it is the complete driver – passenger cabin module that needs to be supported. Which works much better for a variety of vehicle types and simplifies the bespoke part of a multi-berth simulator setup, etc, etc. But it will be MUCH BIGGER, will it work? Is it doable? Soon have the basics of a design that will support the whole cab, although am a bit concerned that what I design as “buildable by me” may not have enough twist resistance so deflection or “bounciness” may be an issue. I resolve to deal with this later and plough on regardless. Also check the dynamic loads to accelerate the various bits at the sort of speeds needed, and find they are all within the capabilities of reasonably practical hydraulic equipment.
2016 Sept 9th: The steel arrives and construction begins in earnest. The drawings are basically “thinking music” to guide how the geometry needs to work, but little mods were regularly being made to suit exactly how things are or the exact size steel I actually had / whatever. But come together it does as assumptions get validated and further engineering and other checks bring confirmations.
2016 Oct – Nov: Fabrication continues and lots of equipment being researched and purchased, be it a host of electrical control gear, a 3-axis datalogger, inclinometers, wheels for a skate system to move it all around, a 3 phase outlet for the garage, and many intricate hydraulic components. And fabrication continues unabated, although in bursts as it is a little taxing on a late 50’s model bod – hot weather / extended exertion / any excuse really will do to stop early / miss a day! Which was fine as planning is very important too, so the days ran together to keep a great rate of progress overall. Of course ANY work on this “pet project” takes a back seat to activities geared around bringing real work into the engineering business, or the performance of same, and that influenced progress too.
2016 Nov 21: Main fabrication “finished” and I concentrated on sorting out the hydraulic parts. Quite a task, but made much easier with the excellent help and support of CMA Electro Hydraulic Engineers who have kindly leant me two spare but very expensive servo controlled hydraulic valves. Also USG Hydraulics has been providing high quality equipment at even better pricing than their normally exceptional value products. See Supporters page for more detail.
During this time I had also purchased and received the Oculus Rift production headset and the HTC Vive headset, as well as built from the ground up a PC capable of running this high end VR gear to the max. I have purchased lots of appropriate software plus collected a lot of the demo stuff, and also purchased a high end driving game controller (more on that later). Can you believe I have been so busy with all the bits ‘n pieces of this project I haven’t even plugged it all together to make sure it works (it will!) or spent any time just fooling around with the extremely good VR experiences that are to be had. I look forward to the day I can take some time out and just have a proper play with all this stuff, and top up my earlier experiences with the DK2 to get calibrated to just how impressive this gear is now. Heck even the Samsung Gear (a lower quality smartphone version that may be considered for a full roll-out) remains unopened and in the meantime my Samsung ph has developed display issues so may not get to use this thing any time soon.
2016 Dec 28th: First time the cabin assembly was properly assembled to the main support arm to find out if we had a problem with twist and we sure did – about 100mm sag, maybe more, and I was concerned a permanent set may have been induced in the main arm longest channels. Maybe not a surprise, but I now had a serious job to do. And all the steel merchants were shut so it was off to Bunnings and using the more unwieldy building profiles, eg 100mm lintels, for angles. This stiffening exercise was a big job, but the benefits gained were so worthwhile and will pay dividends in the quality of experience achieved. Plus it is another variable that has been totally removed from the equation when it comes to the serious testing and tuning stage.
2017 Jan 9th: Seven packs of electrodes later and the stiffening is fully welded in place and the crane & chain hoist removed. And we have ….. no detectable deflection! Wow. Later measured what influence adding a medium sized driver was and it didn’t even make 3mm. Wow again! This is at the end of a cantilevered arm that is in effect ~5m long, shaped in a U configuration. So very happy with this win and painted it up to match in. Started on patent research and writing.
2017 Jan 19th: Took a break from patent writing to put in an interim submission to NSW Parliament Staysafe Committee Inquiry into Driver Education, Training and Road Safety. Mostly to let them know this was going to be a future option and likely to be something they would like to know about sooner than later. I have until 20th Feb to get a more complete submission in, which I will be doing.
2017 Feb 2nd: Provisional patent 2017900314 filed. It had been a big task to understand how to prepare the patent and put it together such that all potential future commercialisation opportunities for this invention are covered, and to maximise licensing opportunities or commercial ventures into related areas. The aim is to take this invention global so all bases have been covered. The formal full patent application will need to be lodged within 12 months which will cost approx $10k – $15k, and which wasn’t going to come out of the base budget of “maybe $20k” I can stretch doing the prototype to before something else needs to happen. Despite that I am pretty confident in my patent work and it is very detailed, when you look at the subtlety of what has been invented here it is pretty big, so it is critical the trained eye of a seasoned patent lawyer be passed over it and the necessary mods made. Which I suspect is going to be via adding a heap more details to what I have already done, my work being mainly to properly identify and secure the key concepts. Plus, as I note in the application, I haven’t finished inventing it yet, although I realise some of the yet-to-come stuff may get separately filed.
2017 Feb 11th: Website went “live” with Overview article “So, What’s it All About…” written plus photos put up. Using the standard WordPress 2016 theme, but struggling to figure out how to make the website look as intended. Will work more on that now some basic info is “up”, including this history. But need to concentrate on the next entry first.
2017 Feb 19th: Put in a formal submission to NSW Parliament StaySafe Committee Inquiry into Driver Education, Training and Road Safety. Details are here.
2017 Apr 22nd: My Engineering D&C Project company business partner of 20+ years, and long term friend, Phil Caldwell, passed away suddenly of natural causes, aged 57yo, may he rest in peace. Apart from the general sorrow and loss one experiences, the consequences of this were seriously disruptive for what I otherwise had planned for simulator project activities. At the time of Phil’s passing, all mechanical work was complete and modifications like relocating the too-noisy hydraulic power pack to a remote location were complete. But this life defining event heralded in a period where no work of any substance occurred on the simulator for some months while I dealt with other things.
2017 July 12th: Put in a submission to Uni of Newcastle Electrical dept to have a final year student progress the setting up activities. Electrical cylinder position sensors were also mounted on the bounce cylinders and an emergency stop button was installed in the cabin. Getting ready for a student invasion that ultimately didn’t happen, as no student took up the project. My conclusion was I wrote the scope ‘too big and scary’, which is the nature of R&D that I am very comfortable with after a lifetime of experiences. I forgot what a complex set of unknowns looks like to younger eyes!
2017 Dec 24th: Commissioned all the VR equipment. Despite that activities around trying to generate funds have sapped my time, this equipment needed not to be in boxes anymore so familiarity and understanding could occur, and the developmental fundamentals better understood. Plus this stuff is fun, for all the family and friends!
2018 Jan 29th: Put in a submission to Uni of Newcastle Electrical dept to have a final year student progress the setting up activities. THIS time wrote it from a much clearer perspective with reasonably confined scope definition, so optimistic a different response will occur. Initial response very positive, will know more late Feb.
2018 Feb 2nd: Filed full Australian patent application number 2018200822. As noted above when the provisional was filed, this should have been the subject of a detailed review by a patent attorney, but the lack of funds didn’t let that occur. However I have read a lot of patents, detailed pieces from experienced attorneys, and cases involving their upholding (or not), and am confident all the critical core stuff is solid and secure. The lodged patent includes details of how a preferred embodiment can readily be a 7 DOF (degree of freedom) system (the prototype is 4 DOF). The electrical info has been deleted and will stay secret, or potentially be the subject of separate patents.
2018 Feb 2nd: Filed International patent application number PCT/AU2018/050072, at four minutes to midnight! Because found out can only claim a priority date of 12 months, not longer as I had previously believed. The fact that this website exists means I needed to lodge a world patent, with a priority date of 2nd Feb 2017 from the provisional patent; ie before this public info was published. It costs nearly $5k to do this, and that is only the start of it as ‘the national phase’, when that starts, means every country you formally register in gets to charge more fees! It also turns out lodging the Australian patent was not required until the PCT entered national phase in up to 30 months time, so a pre-payment to the Aust patent office has happened.
2018 Feb 4th: Put in a formal submission to National Road Safety Strategy 2011-2020, suggesting they embrace projects such as this one and provide strong support!
2018 Feb 6th: Sent a request to a patent attorney to do a proper review of the docs submitted, as there is scope to vary them before international publication, due August 2018.