New Zealand start-up Eight360 is looking to flip the simulator motion world upside-down with its radically simple “rollerball” design. MS&T Editor Rick Adams spoke with co-creator Terry Miller.
Think Tom Cruise Oblivion “Bubble Ship” without the engines. A two-metre-diameter aluminum and polycarbonate ball, inside of which is a one-person seat, controls, and a VR headset. The ball rests on three supports with omni-wheels, each capable of driving the ball in one direction without impeding motion in the other directions, thus enabling the sphere to move in any direction … untethered. This gives the software the ability to pitch, roll or yaw the ball in any direction and at great speed.
Move over, Stewart hexapod. There’s a new motion platform for simulation.
The NOVA V3 is the creation of a small group of young Kiwi engineers who were casting around for a project in their post-uni days. “The idea wasn’t to do a start-up or something commercial; it was to build something cool for ourselves,” Founder and CTO Terry Miller told MS&T.
Now Eight360 – the Eight stands for ‘8-ball’, homage to the initial all-black design – are producing training devices for the New Zealand Defence Forces, academic researchers such as the HITlab (human interface) in Christchurch, and demonstrating the NOVA at the world’s largest military simulation and training conference, I/ITSEC (via partner Brightline Interactive). There’s also a demo unit in Australia with partner Raytracer Space and Defence Technology.
The NOVA-VR combination enables the sensations of being inside a moving race car, truck, aircraft, eVTOL, spaceship… the first project was a six-wheeled medium heavy vehicle trainer, teaching drivers to handle off-road CoG load challenges.
More recently, they produced a custom trainer for amphibious landing operations in which large vehicles such as the CAT938K front-end loader needs to be driven off the strategic sealift ship, HMNZS Canterbury, onto a landing craft across a “wet gap”. The challenge is compounded by the Canterbury stern ramp angle (up to 15o) and the landing craft ramp (up to 28o), as well as varying sea states. “It’s done in the middle of the ocean, and you cannot recreate that on land”, Miller says.
Because the NOVA rollerball is untethered, almost floating on the rollers, all of the computing systems and data to drive the motion platform and VR visuals need to be onboard the sphere, and therefore completely wireless. “That complicates things quite a lot”, Miller notes. “Getting a full VR setup and all the other hardware working inside a moving, self-contained cockpit is not a trivial exercise.” The only cord for the unit is the basic electric power supply to drive the omni-wheel supports.
Compared with traditional Stewart 6DoF motion platforms, Miller told MS&T, “Range of motion, full untethered 360 gives a far wider envelope of physics and forces to leverage for realistic sensations. While we cannot truly deliver the heave/surge/sway, algorithms like motion cueing and linear force ‘vection’ type behaviours are able to credibly replicate the effects. It is amazing how much of your body perception is just your brain extrapolating from the visuals.”
The NOVA “crazy spinning ball”, as Miller describes it, can roll at a rate of 180 degrees a second and, yes, you can invert or perform a 360-degree roll in any direction. That required incorporating an optical tracking sensor (rather than inertial) within the ball frame: “When you spin around, it doesn’t care. The reference is the ball, no matter what position it’s in.”
Which brings up the inevitable ‘simulator sickness’ question. Not with NOVA. “The VR is too real,” Miller claims. “It makes your brain think that you are actually in a vehicle. When we put people in a virtual vehicle that recreates the feeling of actually being in a vehicle, they do not get sick.”
The entire unit weighs less than 500 kg (1,100 lbs) and fits in a 2x2m floor space. Multiple balls can be networked for team training. Eight360’s international business model is to provide the basic NOVA model, “while system integrator content developers who have more experience in the simulation/training side can build out the complete solution”, Miller explains.
Miller received the inaugural NZ Young Engineer of the Year award in 2019, in part for the efforts he’s made to spread the gospel of STEM in schools.
It’s perhaps appropriate that the first omni-wheel motion platform for simulation would come from New Zealand. A platform employing three omni wheels in a triangular configuration is generally known as a Kiwi Drive.