Cultivating a ‘sixth sense’ for the viticulture industry using virtual reality


When a shortage of locally skilled workers in the wine industry was ringing alarm bells for future harvests thanks to COVID-19 border restrictions, the University of Auckland’s Centre for Automation and Robotic Engineering Science (CARES) sharpened its focus on how it could help with the pressing need.

With years of relevant experience thanks to the long-term MaaraTech research programme, Dr Henry William’s curiosity in how automation can support the industry turned to how augmented and virtual reality could assist people in the field. 

“It was through a co-design workshop with industry representatives that helped us see that virtual reality could have a place in teaching people the precise skills needed in the workforce,” says Dr Williams.

He explains pruning grapevines is a high stakes situation – making precisely the right cuts can have years-long consequences for the productivity of the vine and therefore the profitability of the harvest. The window of opportunity for real-world training opportunities is only open for a small period every year and getting it wrong is not much of an option. 

“That is why the industry has relied on recruiting a skilled workforce from overseas for the time they are needed every year. Experienced workers have a ‘sixth sense’ and know exactly what to do.”

AgFirst's Craig Hornblow, Horticulture Consultant and Director, says: "Talk about a VR training solution is one thing, but seeing is believing and the prototypes take this a step further so we can both see and 'do'. For the initial prototypes we have engaged with key industry stakeholders and the initial feedback is 'WOW'. The part of the VR prototype people have been most amazed by is how realistic the vine and the pruning actions are. 

"It will reduce training times and allow further upskilling because training in this setting can be done anytime such as pre-season and on wet days. Plus, in the COVID-19 context training through an environment of social distancing was a real challenge but a VR tool would allow us to be up close and personal with every cut.

"The only challenging question from the industry now is how fast we can roll it out."

Mitchell Faulconbridge, a 4th Year Engineering student working on the project, said the ability to work closely with people across the industry was the key to success. 

“We gained a lot of knowledge from a co-design agile process. Industry representatives and growers were great at feeding back and spotting the things that need to be considered. They are the experts in actually doing it, so they knew immediately if something didn’t ‘feel’ right in the virtual reality setting.”

Watch this video demonstration of the VR solution in action. 

With the minimal viable product essentially up and running in a matter of months in 2020, attention is now turned to how the solution can be developed in the market and adopted as a practical training tool by employers. 

“We would love to see it taken on by a company and fully developed as a training device. We know it solves the problem, so we hope this opportunity is able to be realised,” says Mitchell.

If you are interested in discussing opportunities for the VR solution developed, please get in touch with UniServices Business Development Manager Nick Reilly: 

UniServices has supported by helping to bring together key industry partners, providing IP management and commercialisation advice and securing funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) Endeavour fund which made the project possible.