This article discusses that how mechanical engineers will pair their already-familiar computer-aided design software with not-so-familiar three-dimensional (3D) displays for true 3D design. This is in accordance to a number of vendors' intent on supplying the newfangled computer monitors, within the next two decades. Although some of the devices are already on the market, affordable 3D monitors and displays seem to be more than a decade away, according to one university professor at work on such a project. Widespread adoption is still hindered by factors such as cost, software availability, and lack of a mouse-like device needed to interact with what’s on screen. Over the past 25 years, mechanical engineers have witnessed evolutionary change in design methods-from pen and paper to two-dimensional software and now to 3-D computer-aided design. While software makers have stepped up with sleeker and faster modeling capabilities, visualization lags. Computer users two decades out will carry out all business, web surfing, and gaming on 3-D displays. That next generation may well find the very idea of 2-D monitors to be as dated as record albums seem to teenagers today.
It won't happen today; it won't happen tomorrow. But within the next two decades, mechanical engineers will pair their already-familiar computer-aided design software with not-so-familiar three-dimensional displays for true 3-D design, say a number of vendors intent on supplying those newfangled computer monitors.
Hold on a second. Three-dimensional design is already here, you say.
Up to a point, reply the vendors who are rushing to bring new 3-D displays and monitors to market. They say that today's CAD software depends on shading and brightness cues-rather than on the true illusion of depth-to get a 3-D effect. Adding depth through the use of a special display can only ratchet up design capabilities another notch.
Although some of these devices are already on the market, affordable 3-D monitors and displays seem to be more than a decade away, according to one university professor at work on such a project. Widespread adoption is still hindered by factors like cost, software availability, and lack of a mouselike device needed to interact with what's on screen.
Reach in and Grab it
Over the past 25 years, mechanical engineers have witnessed revolutionary change in design methods—from pen and paper to two-dimensional software and now to 3-D computer-aided design. While software makers have stepped up with sleeker and faster modeling capabilities, visualization lags, says Alan Sullivan, president and chief executive officer of LightSpace Technologies Inc. in Norwalk, Conn.
"The computer is great, graphic cards are awesome, but displays haven't gone on to add a new dimension," Sullivan said. "With a 2-D monitor you have to infer 3-D aspects from things like brightness and lighting."
Manipulating virtual objects on a 2-D display-as is standard today-limits design, Sullivan contends. Engineers spend a respectable amount of time rotating the model to determine how the part is oriented and checking for part interference.
Not surprisingly, Sullivan's company makes a 3-D desktop computer monitor-the DepthCube-that gives depth to a displayed image.
"On our monitor, the stuff behind is further from you, so you know what's in front and what's in back," he said.
The DepthCube has a high-speed video projector at the back that sends 3-D image slices across 20 screens, which are lined up one in front of the next within the monitor. Although slices are projected on one screen at a time, they're broadcast so rapidly the viewer doesn't differentiate between screens and slices. The human eye sees one continuous image that almost seems to float in space, Sullivan said.
Engineers feel they are looking into a box that contains an image with depth and heft. So much so, that an engineer could be forgiven for feeling he could reach in and grab his design, much the way you'd remove a pair of shoes from a shoebox.
Such monitors do away with frequent interference or collision checks, Sullivan added. Most of today's 3-DCAD applications include a capability by which engineers can check digitally for places where parts collide inappropriately.
According to Sullivan, the interference-checking features must exist only because humans have a difficult time distinguishing 3-D design on a 2-D display. A 3-D display will clearly show collisions and will eliminate the need to check for interferences, he said.
His team recently looked at a mounting board created with CAD software and displayed on a 2-D monitor. "We couldn't tell if the board was coming through the part's skin," Sullivan said.
When they ran a check to see if those areas collided, the software returned about 50 collision points. Sullivan called the results overkill for a mechanical engineer who only wants to check out how things match up in one spot.
Gaze into the Ball
Suppose engineers want to see the image from the side and back, as you would in real life.
Enter the Perspecta Spatial 3-D dome developed by Actuality Systems Inc. of Bedford, Mass. You view an image from all angles by simply walking around it, said Gregg Favalora, the chief technical officer and company founder.
The images inside the dome take up volume just as objects do, but they appear to float within the surrounding transparent dome. Favalora refers to the display as a computer-controlled crystal ball.
The device creates a 3-D image out of many slices. A projector quickly broadcasts images of each slice on a rotating screen. Because that screen spins so fast, the human eye automatically fuses slices into a single image, said Tovi Grossman, a doctoral candidate in the University of Toronto's Department of Computer Science who is working with Actuality Systems on the dome.
A version of the dome is commercially available. Customers include NASA, Grossman said, but as yet, no newfangled mouse exists to manipulate images within the dome or the monitor.
A regular mouse controls only x and y coordinates; a 3-D display includes a third coordinate, z. According to Sullivan, "It's a catch-22. There's no 3-D mouse because there's no 3-D displays."
Sullivan's team has considered adopting for such purposes a haptic device called Phantom from SensAble Technologies of Woburn, Mass. By pressing on the device, engineers use their sense of touch to manipulate virtual objects. But haptic devices are too expensive to function as an everyday mouse, Sullivan said.
Another product, the MicroScribe Digitizer from Immersion Corp. of San Jose, Calif., functions almost as a reverse engineering tool. Engineers trace over a physical model with the digitizer, which inputs part dimensions into CAD software. The device includes too many features to serve as a basic mouse, Sullivan said.
According to Grossman, "My job is to find for Perspecta the equivalent of the mouse used for the normal, 2-D display."
One thought is to make the plastic dome touch-sensitive, like the touch screens on an automatic teller machine or the self-check-in monitors at airports. If engineers could select icons from a menu on the surface of the display, an external device, like a mouse, wouldn't be needed, Grossman said.
"The display seems to naturally invite people to touch it, so that might be a good way to interact," he added.
At the same time, he's looking at another technique: gesture. With this method, the engineer waves his hands above and about the display in certain patterns. For example, moving a hand from the front to the back of the display would rotate the object the same way.
"If I pinched my fingers and moved my hand from above to the back, it would move the object another way," Grossman said.
For this, cameras would have to be mounted on either side of the dome to track engineers' hands and send that information to the display.
Yet another option might be an input device, more like a laser pointer than a mouse, that an engineer would hold above the ball and move about the ball to control and change the image inside.
Can it run CAD
Lack of appropriate software might be seen as another hindrance to widespread adoption. Yet Sullivan and Favalora say their displays can run CAD software.
The 3-D monitor from LightSpace takes advantage of a depth buffer commonly available on graphics cards but unused by 2-D monitors, Sullivan said.
"There's a way for us to put a little software library in the chain between the application you're running as an engineer and the graphics hardware," Sullivan said.
That little library is the key to running nearly all CAD programs in three dimensions, including Catia, SolidWorks, and Pro/Engineer, he said.
For his part, Favalora says his company has readied SolidWorks software for the Perspecta dome. That application, however, is still in development and hasn't yet been released. Meanwhile, the dome does include visualization software, as the device is mostly used now by doctors and scientists who want to understand and visualize a 3-D shape.
Typical visualization applications include drug discovery-the visualization of protein structures-and surgical planning. Doctors might use the device to study a 3-D angiograph or to see a tumor on a 3-D X-ray or mammogram, Favalora said.
The NASA Ames Research Center of Moffett, Calif., recently purchased the dome to display 3-D earth science and astronomy data.
"We can see various opportunities for rendering 3-D data generated by our earth science models and for displaying the 3-D clusters and structures of the galaxies in our astronomy lab," said David Kao, Ames research scientist. "Since the system offers such a different view of the data, we also believe there are many other applications that will become obvious as we get familiar with the technology."
In the future, Favalora would like to see air-traffic controllers put the dome to work monitoring aircraft traffic patterns in three dimensions. Of course, he expects the device to eventually prove invaluable to video game developers, who are always searching for the next cool technology.
For engineers, one of the dome's great benefits may well be simply getting them together, Grossman said. They can gather to view the same image without having to meet in a special room around an expensive virtual reality screen that projects depth.
"The nice thing is, you can view it from any angle," Grossman said. "You can see all the data, even if you 're behind it, unlike a monitor. So maybe three people are all looking at the same image. Three doctors could be looking at a tear in the ligament and highlight certain sections of the scan together," he added.
With these 3-D monitors and displays, engineers can do away with the goggles, stereoscopic glasses, or additional headgear they'd need to view virtual reality displays.
Other companies at work on 3-D monitors include SeeReal Technologies of Dresden, which makes a flat-panel monitor with the illusion of depth
A Glimpse of the Future
In the engineering realm, while 3-D displays will be useful for part design, assembly design, and industrial design, they will be particularly invaluable for demonstrating phenomena that 2-D displays have a hard time depicting, such as thermal and liquid flow, according to Sullivan and Favalora.
"A 2-D display is good when you're looking at stuff you're already familiar with," Sullivan said. "You know what a car looks like, so with a 2-D display you can fill in the details with your brain. But when you're looking at stuff you're not familiar with, like the combustion in a jet engine, you have to spend a lot of time figuring out what you're looking at."
Scientists and engineers who run computational fluid dynamics and finite element analyses are in what Favalora terms visualization pain.
"Visualization is a tough and expensive problem because companies are spending millions of dollars on rooms for stereo visualization, but engineers want to work at their desks," he said.
Still, it may be a while before any of these displays become commonplace in the engineer's world. Like all emerging technologies, Actuality's dome display still has some glitches to be worked out, Grossman said. You need to dim the lights in a room to see inside the dome; some spots within the display are harder to view than others while certain spots remain a little jittery.
"No one has any doubts it will improve, but we don't know how long that will take," he said.
He places widespread availability and adoption of the dome display at least a decade away. In about 20 years, everyday users—such as the video game enthusiast—will be buying them for home use, he predicts.
On his end, Sullivan's group is working to bring down his 3-D monitor's price without an accompanying loss of performance. Currently, LightSpace monitors sell for $50,000. One model now in the works lowers that price to $15,000.
From there, cost will only go down, resulting one day in a 3-D display on every desktop, both company heads say.
There's no doubt about it, they say: Computer users two decades out will carry out all business, Web surfing, and gaming on 3-D displays. That next generation may well find the very idea of 2-D monitors to be as dated as record albums seem to teenagers today.