Alexander Bradley, Managing Director, Cobra Simulation (Bathgate, Scotland), responds to five questions posed by Marty Kauchak, Halldale Media Group Editor.
MS&T: Tell us some of the technology breakthroughs and innovations Cobra Simulation is supporting and observing in the immersive dome projection market.
Alexander Bradley (AB): Cobra has always been an innovation-led business, taking existing technology, new ideas and packaging them in a unique format for consumption by its clients. Recognizing where the niche exists, then seeking to disrupt and fill the gap. Domes would have appeared to have followed a linear path, or have seen little innovation that has made headlines. But if you know where to look, the opposite is true. Collimated dome displays, negative- and dual-pressure domes, fabric domes, modular domes, roll-up domes, and the list goes on. Each trying to solve traditional technical problems in the training needs of clients. None quite nailing them all, due to physical, optical, or digital constraints.
Delivering content suitable for consumption on a dome is a complex task, and the traditional method of consumption via flat screens has been at odds with solving this problem. With a market that has had to be kicked, pulled, and prodded until recently to wake up and start dealing with the technical issues which enable wide-scale adoption of immersive production and content.
Cobra as a business launched its first targeted product in 2013, demonstrating to the market that it could solve the majority of these challenges in a small form factor, but with scalable potential. The Cobra150 was the first single-channel projection dome to see large-scale adoption in the simulation and training market, with the company delivering nearly 200 installations worldwide. Despite this slow but steady increase in demand, it has been a constant battle for the broader social acceptance of ‘immersive content.’
Until recently, and by recently, I mean the re-birth of consumer-led VR like Oculus (thanks, Palmer Luckey), there has been little appetite for the level of investment needed to break tradition. Finally, with the emergence of real VR/AR/XR adoption that, thankfully, is not ahead of its time anymore, the term “immersive” is now a household, socially accepted norm.
So what? Why is that important? As with any industry, with adoption comes investment, with investment comes innovation, and with innovation comes progress.
Cobra has compartmentalised its research and development into four core areas with a base set of criteria for each: the projection dome surface; optics; projectors; and software.
We have innovated and continue to innovate in these areas. Re-investing year-on-year the bulk of our profit to grow and expand our knowledge and capability. The latest addition to this being software. Which therein has always lain the problem – content production and delivery when an entire market is built around a 16:9 image with a limited field of view.
In the last 10 years we have delivered innovation in seamless dome production, portability, and affordable optics, using first surface mirror technology. We have worked closely with projector manufacturers to help prioritise their product arcs for better adoption and have driven single-channel content delivery adoption with game engine companies and application developers.
MS&T: These developments point to a pivot in this S&T industry sector. Comment on the returns on investment Cobra Simulation provides the training enterprise – for instance, encouraging the use of higher-fidelity flight training devices as opposed to investing in full-flight simulators, when appropriate; training system cost reduction; and others.
AB: One such pivot in the group of four that we are championing today is that of projector resolution and its impact in the dome projection sector.
Moore’s Law. Cobra realised that it would have success in this simulation market because it had the foresight to recognise the principle of ‘Moore’s Law’ and its application for the development of projector resolution. Resolution is doubling on projectors every 2-4 years, and at the same time the price to the user is falling – as a parallel, witness what has happened in the consumer television market. The drive is to increase the resolution to enable the viewer to be unable to distinguish pixels on a screen, thereby enhancing the visual authenticity of the images. The current target market resolution for domes is around 1.5 arcmins/pixel (‘Retina Display’ as dubbed by Apple). Our smallest Cobra150 display already delivers 2.5 arcmins/pixel as we have adopted three cycles of the Moore’s Law principle since 2012, being 720p > 1080p (HD) > 4K (UHD) resolutions. 2021 has seen the introduction of 8K. Consequently, we can fulfil market expectations on our smallest dome without the need for multiple projectors, a key unique selling proposition.
Cost Benefit. Our single-channel projection solutions have a substantially reduced cost throughout project cycles because we strip out the complexity and remove many of the technical problems associated with multi-projector installs. For example, these include edge blending, warp and blending multi-channel licencing, and the need for matched projector factory calibration. As each cycle of resolution is adopted, this enables the ability to project the same number of pixels with fewer projectors, leading to a significant market pivot to single-channel solutions.
Threat or Opportunity? Depends on who you ask. Our industry is changing, and it is for the better. Dare I mention ‘net zero targets?’ We find ourselves in a position today where circumstance has been driven by a training need, and manufacturers and integrators have quite rightly fulfilled that need. Doing what we do best, throwing more horsepower at the problem. To improve the fidelity, we must increase the resolution and our only choice until now was to increase the volume of projectors. Good for business, great for the user, bad for the pocket and the environment.
Our message is this: it can be good for business, great for the user, good for the pocket and kinder to the environment.
MS&T: Provide an overview of the expanding use cases for Cobra Simulation products within the military and adjacent high-risk training sectors – healthcare, civil aviation, others.
AB: I stated earlier that everything we have been developing is scalable, another key USP for potential stakeholders. In 2020 we launched the Cobra180, a new, scaled-up single-channel dome, largely enabled by the industry pivot in resolution. This was a big statement to the industry that innovation is enabling the scalable element of our product range. With further improvements in optics, we have not only increased the size of our new product but increased its FoV while retaining key dome resolution targets. This appeals to a much wider user case than before and is a key candidate for the next iteration of 16K projectors, bringing the Cobra180 into the retina display category.
Expanding use cases are presenting, with the continued adoption of our systems, into military markets across NATO, covering land, air, sea and now space. With recent deployments to the F35 program for hypoxia research and training, the Eurofighter program to enhance the fidelity of their flight trainers, and aircraft HUD development, this has helped to open new sectors in the evolving space industry. We expect to be deploying our first Cobra180 for use in space simulation training this fall. We’ll certainly share this development with MS&T!
Civil aviation presents one of the largest opportunities as it bounces back from Covid and, as we are about to see, a surge in electric short-flight vehicles. To take advantage of the growing greener energy flight programs, Cobra has become part of the COP26 initiative for sustainable aviation. Cobra is officially one the Scottish Government’s ‘Team Scotland’ champions, with a heavy focus on how we deliver more affordable immersive training to drive the adoption of greener sustainable flight.
MS&T: Those related developments will be of great interest to readers of our companion publication CAT. Share your insights on how the immersive dome projection sector will evolve and remain competitive, in particular with the maturation of headsets for immersive training, and other developments.
AB: It’s a great question because depending on who you ask you will get very different answers.
You would think that I would have a biased view on domes versus XR, after all domes provide a core revenue stream for the business. Interestingly, there has been what I call a swing adoption of VR/AR. That is where adoption of a new technology swings heavily in its favour, but then the honeymoon period wears off and enough people redress the balance as the technology’s flaws are exposed, swinging back toward the technology it was slated to replace. All while the existing technology continues to innovate to a better position. (Stereoscopic 3D was another great example.) I think we have completed the first swing and we are now swinging back in its favour as the second frenzy takes hold. This is driven by large investments in companies like Varjo, who have made huge inroads to address many of the technical flaws found with headsets.
I am beyond doubt that VR/AR (XR) is here to stay. I am also beyond doubt that there is most definitely a place for it in simulation training, and as an industry, we should embrace its benefits. There are, however, many cases where a headset is not conducive to the training need, with too many instances where it is being forced as the answer. So, the key to its swing becoming stable is how we apply it and for what need. Where it doesn’t fit, dome displays do. There’s plenty of ‘pie’ for everyone!
I see a market for both in the short- to medium-term, I certainly do not see a drop in inquiries for domes; in fact, we are experiencing the exact opposite.
However, the dome projection sector, I do believe, is maturing, and so must still evolve and adapt to this new young kid on the block. Cobra will lead the way and is working on new technology to deploy on larger single-channel systems as the swing returns for a second time.
MS&T: Highlight what MS&T readers will see from Cobra Simulation through early 2022.
AB: Cobra Simulation has an interesting roadmap built on our current R&D projects, which will see it continue to lead and grow market share in the production and deployment of cost-effective highly deployable dome projection solutions that use only a single channel. Readers can expect to see our full adoption of XR and its integration to our wider portfolio, offering our clients greater choice from a trusted brand. They can expect to see our early immersive software development launch to market, along with a few surprises on the way.
MS&T: Thank you. We look forward to meeting with the Cobra team at a live conference later this year.
AB: You are quite welcome, and we’ll certainly make time for a meeting.