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Both today and tomorrow Munich will host the Augmented World Expo (AWE), an annual gathering that will be dedicated to three emerging and promising techniques: Augmented, Virtual and Mixed Reality (collectively known as XR). Both developers and representatives of interested companies will be present and attend workshops, participate in lectures and discuss each other’s XR-implementations. One of those representatives is Chris Koomen, VR-pioneer at KLM. Innovation Origins spoke to him about his notable career, his role as a panel member during AWE and about XR-applications in the corporate world.

It was 1996 when Chris Koomen first became acquainted with virtual reality, a technique that at the time still required large, heavy glasses and an incredible amount of computing power. “As a fanatic ‘flight-simmer’ I wanted to be able to step inside of my cockpit through those glasses. That really seemed fascinating to me. Eventually, I got it up and running, but there was no head-tracking built in, and the refresh-rate was not correct at all – you got nauseous very quickly. In addition, the communication between the eye and the hand – everything was controlled by using a mouse – caused a lot of confusion. It was not ideal, but I did see the potential the technique had”, says Koomen. “It simply was too early to use VR. The computers were too cumbersome, and the technology had not developed to the required degree.”

Koomen, who only considered VR a hobby back in the days, has a remarkable career: “From an early age, I wanted to become a pilot. However, I was rejected as a result of an accident. I started working in the agricultural sector for a long time, and for six months I’ve worked as a CV mechanic. Then I joined KLM. In 2007 I was hired as a mechanic, and I was allowed to work on three different kinds of aircraft.” After having worked in the hangar for eight years, time was ripe for something new. Koomen decided to work in another position within the company: “From that moment in 2015 on, I started working on VR again.” He explored the possibilities and was given the opportunity to experiment with a technique that is now widely used within the Dutch-French airline.

Proof of concept

As a proof of concept, Koomen decided to tackle an essential part of the mechanics’ profession: the safety trainings. “In my time in the hangar, I always considered it strange that we were required to evacuate the entire building year after year. Time and again it was to be done in the winter, and you were waiting in the cold until you could enter the building again; that did not seem like the right approach to me. That is why, together with some educational experts, I developed a VR experience in which you can experience a number of safety scenarios for yourself. What we found out immediately was that hangar staff experienced it as an incredibly fun way to learn and that they had also learned much more as a result. When employees make a certain choice in the VR environment, it immediately affects what they are seeing. For example, if you step into the elevator, you will see that it starts filling up with smoke,” says Koomen. “What we have noticed is that users experience it as being so realistic that they start breathing faster and become involved emotionally,” he continues.

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“The past two years have been a very turbulent time. Regularly I question myself what actually happened. From scratch, I’ve set it all up, and now there are nine very enthusiastic people working on different types of VR programs,” says Koomen. The tools, which are developed from within the KLM Digital Studio, are used in all kinds of different departments within the company. The Cityhopper team, the catering department and the Engineering and Maintenance division have all recently trained newcomers with the help of VR apps that were developed by Koomen and his team. His efforts resulted in Koomen winning a prestigious prize; of the 32,000 people KLM employs, he was elected ‘Pioneer of the Year’.

Augmented World Expo

“The Augmented World Expo is an event where specialists in the field of augmented, virtual (and mixed reality, ed.) gather,” Koomen explains. More than 100 different companies like Microsoft, Disney and Volkswagen will be showing their ideas, while experts and pioneers will scatter across five stages. “During AWE, I will be part of a discussion panel together with a number of other experts in the field of virtual reality. It is a wonderful event, and I am very proud to be able to share my visions.”