This article highlights that virtual reality is expected to be the next big thing in electronic world. For engineers, this means that within the next decade designing on a flat computer screen will no longer be the norm. Expect to at least touch and manipulate a virtual part as you design and probably even walk inside and around a projection of the design in progress. Mechanical engineers who work at large or even at not-so-large companies have probably seen a manifestation of this. The Cyber Edge study found the three visual simulation markets with the most growth currently are virtual prototyping, design evaluation, and technology architecture. The technologies are now more and more commonly deployed at engineering companies of all sizes. As usual, large companies, such as automakers, can afford to be ahead of the curve on the coming technological trends, and virtual reality is no exception.
In a world of technological next big things, virtual reality is expected to be the next big tiling. For engineers, this means that within the next decade designing on a flat computer screen will no longer be the norm. Expect to at least touch and manipulate a virtual part as you design and probably even walk inside and around a projection of the design in progress.
The virtual reality, or visual simulation, market was valued at $24 billion in 2000 and is expected to grow by more than 50 percent each year this decade, according to CyberEdge, a 10-year-old New York research and marketing firm that covers the industry. CyberEdge analyzes the animation, medical, and architectural industries in addition to engineering.
Daratech, the Cambridge, Mass., engineering technology market research firm, puts the market value of virtual prototyping and visualization technologies used in engineering alone at $1.3 billion. Daratech does not forecast long-term, but predicts growth of almost 20 percent for 2001.
Obviously, growth in that sector is expected to be significant regardless of whose projection you follow. Mechanical engineers who work at large or even at not-so-large companies have probably seen a manifestation of this. The CyberEdge study found the three visual simulation markets with the most growth currently are virtual prototyping, design evaluation, and technology architecture. The technologies are now more and more commonly deployed at engineering Companies of all sizes.
Just as engineering firms seemed to move en masse from two-dimensional to three dimensional computer-aided design technologies only a few years ago, engineers are now seeing a revolution in virtual prototyping technologies, according to Ben Delaney, CyberEdge's president. He expects what he called interactive design technologies- or virtual reality technologies-to follow that pattern.
Delaney claims that engineers and other present-day technology users stand poised on the brink of a technological revolution not yet fully understood. The revolution, he 'said, will be led by the technology industry's ability to create a separate, virtual reality through sheer computing power.
''I'm convinced that the increasing power and ubiquity of computers and the cyber intelligence they embody will have an effect on civilization as great as that of fire, the printing press, or electricity," Delaney said. "In fact, as we look at the coming convergence of computing power far beyond current standards, at mechanical technology, biotech advantages, and new sources of energy, we see the outline of a world with the potential to be completely awful or uniquely utopian."
He said he expects the reality to work out somewhere between awful and utopian.
Either way, by 2050 expect nanotechnology to have changed manufacturing methods from those known today, biotechnology to have affected the evolutionary process, and computers to be as smart as people, Delaney said. That last point will be reflected in the virtual reality applications only now being developed, he added.
For proof that computers will reach human intelligence levels by the middle of the century, Delaney pointed to Moore's Law, which was developed in 1965 by Gordon Moore, cofounder of microchip and microprocessor maker Intel. Moore observed 36 years ago that the pace of microchip technology development is such that the amount of data a microchip can hold doubles every year to year-and-a-half. Attendant to the law is the observation that as microchip power increases, the cost of building and powering computers falls.
The Next Stage
The rise of microchip power and fall in computer prices have ushered in what some analysts call the next stage in engineering technology-greater and better visualization capabilities. And this next stage takes many forms.
The most accessible visualization technology at present is the virtual prototyping software now in use at many engineering firms and often used in conjunction with CAD systems and analysis software. Virtual prototyping software allows engineers to test their designs on a computer, rather than building an actual prototype and testing it in real life. The virtual prototypes can be made to simulate operation-that is, the computer simulation can be powered to predict the way the part would act in real world conditions. If the virtual part doesn't pass a test or fails an analysis, engineers have a good idea how to tweak the design in the CAD system to ensure that a second prototype will perform up to par. Usually, a physical prototype enters near the end of the process, to confirm or correct the CAD model.
A host of technology vendors make and market virtual prototyping software.
The virtual prototyping and visualization sector will grow 18.5 percent in 2001 to $1.3 billion, compared with a 15.6 percent growth in 2000 as more companies adopt these technologies, according to Daratech. In comparison, the marketing firm pegged expected growth in the mechanical CAD and computer-aided manufacturing market at 8.7 percent this year. Daratech analysts predicted that spending in the CAD-CAM area will reach $5.3 billion in 2001.
Delaney points out that there is still much room for our present-day computers to change and expand-in fact, to mutate into something we don't recognize as the boxlike computer we now use (seemingly all day) . Some precursors of what may be the next-stage computer are with us today. For instance, SensAble Technologies in Woburn, Mass., is among software vendors that have released programs allowing sculptors and commercial designers to create models on computer screens and to feel those models as they create them. The company's software, called FreeForm, enables users to interact with 3-D data not only by viewing it, but also by touching it. Of course, designing by feel rather that relying on sight is not now the vogue. But it may well be in the not-too-distant future.
GM Has a Hand in VR
As usual, large companies, such as automakers, can afford to be ahead of the curve on the coming technological trends, and virtual reality is no exception. For instance, executives at the diesel division of General Motors of Canada in Oshawa, Ontario, say they have cut the time it takes to develop and deliver a light-armored vehicle by use of what the company calls an immersive-display system. Light-armored vehicles are six- to eight-wheel specialized vehicles produced for use by military and law enforcement.
The immersive-display system the division uses for vehicle design consists of a variety of projected display systems, including a 10-foot-square automatic virtual environment, or CAVE, an 8-foot by 24-foot Work Wall, and two 6-foot by 8-foot WorkWalls, all provided by Fakespace Systems of Kitchener, Ontario. The projected displays are part of a virtual environment technologies center built in 1999 in London, Ontario, with funding from the GM diesel division; the National Research Council of Canada; Fakespace Systems ; Silicon Graphics of Mountain View, Calif.; and the University of Western Ontario in London.
The CAVE is so named because users literally enter a complete virtual environment in which they can walk around and touch objects as they would in the real environment.
Computer - Generated Immersion
A cave gives this illusion by projecting stereoscopic images on the walls and floor of a room size cubicle. Several people wearing lightweight, special glasses can enter and walk freely inside the CAVE. A head-tracking system contained within the glasses continuously adjusts the stereoscopic projection to the viewer's position. Inside such an environment, a number of input devices like data gloves, joysticks, and handheld wands let the user navigate through a virtual environment and interact with virtual objects. Directional sound, force-feedback, and voice recognition devices that are sometimes included in these immersive environments help users feel more present in the virtual world.
The WorkWalls are large walls often used for group presentations and collaborative design reviews. The walls use two or more projectors to create a high-resolution 3-D image. Users of the virtual environment technologies center can project large, one-to-one scale models in 3-D or two-dimensional detail on the floor-to-ceiling screen. Optional interaction devices, such as specially outfitted gloves, allow users to work directly with the data.
CA VE-style environments, originally designed at the University of Illinois at Chicago, have been commercialized by a number of vendors. For example, Elumens Corp. in Cary, N.C., has developed what the company calls a VisionDome, a color, raster-based interactive display that looks like a dome, in which a 3-D display is projected in 360 degrees with a half-circle field of view. No special goggles or gloves are needed in this environment.
Canadian manufacturing companies are able to purchase time at the London, Ontario, virtual environment technologies center to model their virtual prototypes and CAD designs in three dimensions. The diesel division, of course, makes use of the center, where the visualization system allows designers, managers, and customers to review realistic, computer-generated models. The models are full-scale, and the CAVE environment allows engineers and others to actually walk up to and around the models.
"Our models are created in a math-based computing environment and viewed on standard two-dimensional monitors," said Joe Attard, the manager of concurrent product development at GM Canada's diesel division. "Since the types of things we build are quite large in scale, we never got to see full models, even in 2-D.
"We were amazed by the effect of a full-scale stereoscopic view of our entire power pack because it appeared to be hanging there in space. The immersive display makes you feel like you can reach out and touch it," he added.
The GM division's power pack is made up of the engine, the transmission, and all mounted ancillary equipment. Attard said his group found design errors in the first 3-D model displayed.
"We immediately saw a fitting that was floating in space," he said. "We saw interferences that normally wouldn't have been uncovered until much later in the design cycle."
The division uses a standard set of design tools that are specified across the entire GM corporation. The tools include CAD modeling software from UGS of St. Louis, the iMan product data management software, also from UGS, and the Product Vision Suite for visualizing parts on regular computer monitors. The suite is a UGS repackaging of software from subsidiary Engineering Animation Inc. of Ames, Iowa.
Before using the visualization center that they had a hand in building, diesel division engineers created new designs in the CAD package. They then plotted two-dimensional drafting views of the models and hung them on the walls in a meeting room for design reviews, Attard said. Then, a group of employees made up of both technical and nontechnical members made decisions about the project based on the drafting views on the wall.
Attard said that the design problems, such as the floating fitting, in the past were generally not caught until the product had been built. Of course, the design engineers would then change the CAD design to correct the problem, but in some cases production was already under way and had to be stopped, causing expensive retooling and delays.
Changing the Design-review Process
After the virtual environment technologies center was up and running, the division changed the design-review process. Now, the team meets at the center where members view full-scale 3-D models that, as Attard pointed out, appear to hover in space. That is, they look like they are taking up room in three dimensions. Using the technology, the team can see any angle of the model, including cross sections and animations in the virtual-reality, 3-D view.
The new review process saves time not only because team members catch design problems faster, but also because they don't have to develop 2-D drafting models from the CAD models. For major design reviews and presentations, the group uses the larger of the two WorkWalls, which 30 to 40 people can sit before. There, they view the fully assembled power-pack model in two dimensions or they can don special glasses to see the fullsize model in 3-D.
If they need what Attard calls a more hands-on experience, they use the CAVE, although that immersive system is useful only for smaller groups. The enclosed room projects 3-D visuals on three walls and the floor, so that the user is completely immersed in the computer-generated environment. The division members use the CAVE to view models inside-out. That is, they feel like they are literally inside the assembled power pack. Inside the CAVE, a designer wearing a head-tracking device manipulates the model using specially equipped gloves or a specially designed wand. The viewing perspective is accurate only for the designer wearing the head-tracking device (which aligns the model with the movements of his head). That is why only one person or, sometimes, a• small group, can use the CAVE at anyone time.
Using the virtual environment technologies, division members can review two or three different design concepts in the time it formerly took the company to review one concept, Attard said. In addition, team members make better design decisions and find design flaws faster by use of the virtual reality technology.
In the future, the division hopes to install similar visualization technology in London, England, to assist with the design of the diesel and electric locomotives it builds there.
GM, of course, is a large company and so can afford the latest. The continuing drop in computer prices-as wellas the concept of building a visualization center for contracted use by several manufacturers-might let small companies take advantage of this design-aiding technology in the near future