From Virtual to Reality

For those who work in design and product development, CAD (Computer Aided Design) is nothing new but rather a matter of course. As early as in the middle of the last century, exploration began about the possibilities of using digital systems to facilitate and open new possibilities in design and production; in the beginning, it was very simple programs that could rehearse lines in a repetitive manner, but within a couple of decades they had advanced far enough to leave pure research behind in favor of budding profitability.

This near-experimental development was generally reserved for the major companies in the automotive and aerospace industry, which developed their systems independently of their competitors; it would take time before CAD came to the public market. Senior engineers in the industry can look back to the early 80’s when Dassault and, in particular, Autodesk laid the foundation for relatively simple and applicable 2D graphics through CATIA and AutoCAD which are strong brand names even today. It became possible in the latter half of the eighties to put the drawing board aside for the benefit of the personal computer and slowly large, bulky drawing archives began to fade away in favor of server rooms and storage media.

In the late 80’s came Pro / Engineer, followed a few years later in the mid 90’s by SolidWorks. CAD in the form of 2D drawings was now more standard than exceptions, but both developers and markets were looking higher; why being satisfied with 2D when you can get 3D? In 1999, Autodesk Inventor was launched as a final nail in the 2D CAD coffin, although it still remains in its place where 3D is simply not necessary or profitable. Twenty-some years after the initial CAD revolution, designers and product developers all over the world increasingly had moved to the new technology, as most of us know it today, with solid and surface modeling in three dimensions.

The Third Wave

Today, about twenty years after the last stage of development, the next major stage change is at the door. Sure, it’s good to be able to see the models in three dimensions, but imagine if you could see them instantly, rather than through the screen’s still quite limited possibilities? Several well-known companies have launched VR (Virtual Reality) equipment in recent years, which can be said to bring the user into the program rather than letting the screen bring the program to the user. VR technology is not really new – VR trials in computer-generated environment was done as early as in the late 60’s – but it’s only recently that technology has begun to be practically applicable.

Oculus Rift came first, but was followed shortly by HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, Playstation VR and others. Most of these players have initially focused on gaming rather than work-related applications, but slowly both the developer and the clientele are beginning to open their eyes (pun intended) to the opportunities.

The areas of use are plenty for VR and the development potential is enormous. Today, VR is used, for example, in health care, in attempts to allow surgeons to practice without actual patients or to take advantage of the great benefits of technology in terms of precision and the ability to provide better visibility. Within the construction industry, VR is used to allow engineers as well as construction staff and customers to “get inside” and look around in buildings before they are built.

Even a mix between VR technology and reality has proven to be both practical and efficient. So-called Augmented Reality (AR) – where digital graphics are placed as a filter in front of the eyes – are already used in their own way; for example, in the construction industry and the automotive industry where a user can get information about attachments, parts, necessary modifications, etc. by passing through the construction / vehicle rather than scrutinizing drawings.

VR in CAD

2D became 3D, which is now about to take the next step. It is not just about getting “closer” to the model or being able to see the product in its environment before it is manufactured. It is also a more natural design process, which in the future might even allow the designer to not only get the feeling of a product but actually let them ”feel” it. With the help of VR, the need for prototyping is likely to decrease, both from the engineer’s and the customer’s point of view. Through VR-adapted design, the risk of poor communication at all stages (designer – designer – manufacturer – customer) can decrease as you no longer have to imagine the final product but can experience it immediately. With the right pedagogy, the learning curve of a drawing program can also be shortened; to scale a model by grabbing it with both hands and then slowly dragging apart is more intuitive than starting to look in menus and toolbars after the correct command.

VR-CAD also opens up great opportunities for designers to interact more and more; Using plug-ins, it is quite possible for several people sitting in different parts of the world – even in different drawing programs – to meet in a fictional environment and work together with a richly detailed assembly model of a car. There are also advantages between engineer and assembly staff; it may never be exactly the same as going down to the actual workflow – for social reasons, if not else – but that would be a big step in the right direction (especially when the factory and the engineer are in different countries).

Virtual Reality is here to stay. Although today it may feel expensive and clumsy, the next few years will significantly improve both price and design. For those who feel VR is unnecessary and unmerited, one only has to remember that the same was said from the drawing boards when the novelty “AutoCAD” was launched just 40 years ago.

About the author:

Mats Hellström, Produktutvecklare på Avalon Innovation


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