Industrial modelling could soon move from plastic prototypes to the digital world following the introduction of an augmented reality design system.

The system, developed as part of the pan-European Sound and Tangible Interferences for Novel Product Design (SATIN) project, combines 3D digital modelling with touch-sensitive haptic systems to allow designers to feel and shape creations virtually.

Prof Monica Bordegoni, who is leading the research, said: ’Designers use computer programs to create mathematically precise models of products, but they still need to be able to see and handle the model physically.

’Until now, the only way they have been able to do that is to turn to a model maker to create a real, physical sample. It’s a labour-intensive, time-consuming and costly process.’

Haptic technology takes advantage of the user’s tactile senses by using mechanics and special materials to transmit information through forces and vibrations.

The SATIN system incorporates this technology using two robotic arms, which position and rotate an electronic version of a robotic spline used to draw curves.

A set of mirrors allows designers to view their creations through 3D glasses. They can then reshape and reform their 3D models by pushing and pulling the ends of the robotic spline.

Any additional information that cannot be perceived by touch on the spline is transmitted through audio signals as the designer runs a finger along it.

Bordegoni said: ’Haptic technology is still not advanced enough to provide all of the information… However, we expect improvements in materials and mechanics over the coming years to lead to systems that will allow designers to feel, handle and reshape any object surface.’