Virtual Worlds
– From Science Fiction To Reality

As early as 2012, the Lab Design, Visualization & Virtual Reality (VR) department within Roche's Diagnostics division was venturing forward into a realm of true innovation. And with success: The technology used to create virtual worlds has revolutionised how the company presents its laboratory systems.

Virtuelle Welten

If Star Trek fans could make anything from their favourite series become reality in today's world it would be these two superpowers: The ability to quickly and efficiently beam to their next holiday location. And the ability to explore foreign places on the holodeck. This virtual reality facility makes it possible to experience terrains, buildings, and certain spaces in a deceptively true-to-life simulation.

Christopher Grieser can vouch for the usefulness of this science fiction scenario. As head of Roche's Lab Design, Visualization & Virtual Reality department, he knows that beaming won't happen. Nevertheless, he can spare his customers – laboratory managers from all over the world – an onerous trip. And that is because the feasibility of a holodeck is no longer just science fiction.

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Customised solutions without the stress of travel

At the Centre of Excellence for Virtual Reality (VR) in Mannheim, Roche is creating 3D real-time laboratory environments for country organisations worldwide. The visualisation is so adept at replicating even the most complex system down to the last detail that you immediately feel as if you are in a room full of diagnostic instruments. Yet even more impressive is a tour of the showrooms at multiple global Roche sites. This virtualisation will increasingly take the place of on-site visits offering customers a preview of reference laboratories that require extensive travel. Tours are often used to give customers an idea of what their future laboratory might look like. A virtual tour is just as effective.

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This technology offers a comprehensive look at the overall solution, as opposed to simply the individual products, making it possible to quickly identify and prevent planning errors in an early state, for example, when calculating available space. Virtual reality can also be interesting for change management in the laboratory. Employees can experience and try out the new environment in advance, which means they are engaged early on and actively integrated in the process.

At the high-tech campus in Mannheim, customers can use two rooms to enter virtual worlds straight away. The rooms seem rather barren at first. With the exception of sensors on the ceilings and walls. They are the only evidence of some potential in what appear to be desolate rooms – until the technology brings everything to life. "We use this technology during the purchasing process to present real-life solutions to our customers", explains Christopher Grieser. "To do this, we measure their space and plan how the staff, samples, and materials need to operate within the laboratory." Before this technology was available, we used videos and images. Today, customers put on a pair of 3D glasses and take an interactive tour. "As the protagonist, the customer finds himself in a laboratory environment that is extremely true to life and can experience it for himself", says Grieser.

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The success is clear

According to Grieser, the playful nature of the process makes selling diagnostic solutions easier: "If the customers want to know how a certain workflow works, they can test it themselves. If they are interested in a new instrument, we can use time lapse to show them how it works and how it interacts with other systems in their lab." These workflows in analysers take five minutes to demo instead of three to four hours. Processes such as wait cycles during the warm-up and cool-down phases, which in reality take a lot of time, are shortened to only a few seconds in a virtual world. The technology virtualises products, their functionalities and comprehensive workflows vividly.

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With these new presentation methods, Roche is able to create a "completely different dynamic during discussions, and a basis for a common and uniform understanding". According to Grieser, the latter falls short in classical layout planning. VR technology is so illustrative and convincing that it is not unusual for customers to reconsider who they want for their provider after experiencing a virtual live tour – and this is where Roche reaps the benefits.

Successes like these play an important part in strengthening the innovative culture at the site. And it's not just because playing computer games isn't what you expect to be part of a typical work day. "The entire team in Mannheim stood behind us when we started using this technology in 2012, even though at the time, VR technology was limited to only a few industries and universities", recalls Grieser. "For more than 20 years, our staff in Mannheim has been designing laboratories and ever since 2006, we have been creating all of our plans in 3D. The revolutionary step forward into the world of VR seemed natural." Nevertheless, the path to virtual reality was still a risk. Even the high-tech experts faced some challenges. "We had to convince a few internal critics that the technology was there and build up the necessary know-how." Perseverance and courage were required to help keep us fighting for a technology that was, at that time, still in its infancy and hardly known."

Roche Mannheim

The work of persuasion has paid off

The lobbying paid off, in part because this visualisation technology is great for sales presentations. And in Mannheim, Site Management also benefits from their colleagues' VR expertise when planning buildings. Its potential is far from exhausted. "When it comes to laboratory systems, we can actually service the entire value chain", say Christopher Grieser with certainty. For example, this is one way to save money we would otherwise spend on mockups and prototypes in product development, if the product's ergonomics can be tweaked with just a few mouse clicks. "Recently, we have also been able to advance our training, because we offer quicker access to instruments and processes. We are already using the virtual laboratory environment for the onboarding of new employees and to help customers get an enhanced experience of Roche's portfolio of products."

Furthermore, it is possible to connect this service to customers and instruct them using virtual or augmented reality. Even entire sites can connect with one another. An expert can provide support to the laboratory without actually being there. And the environment benefits too. Through the use of the cobas diagnostic analysers series, Grieser's team has proven that the virtual presentation of laboratory technology not only saves quite a bit of money and resources, but also reduces waste, transport costs, and CO2 emissions at the same time. Eventually, beaming from one place to another isn't necessary if you work with the VR team to plan your laboratory.

Roche's Produktion Technology