Desk, room or wall?

Immersive visualisation technologies have been around for some time, serving the design needs of the larger corporations. But which one suits you?

As a Design Engineer, you may already be au fait with the myriad of 3D, fully immersive, real time virtual reality technologies, although if you are then you probably work for one of the major automotive, aerospace or petrochemical companies.

It is often applied as a stepping stone to working digital models, the design of which can be approved or modified without building a prototype.

‘There are CAVE environments, curved screens (either cylindrical or spherical) and there are flat screen environments, all of which can display very large images at high resolution,’ says John Fleming of SGI. ‘Then there is the application software, host computer, stereoscopic eyewear and other peripherals.’

The question is, which technology suits your company’s needs and how much is your company prepared to pay, given that prices for a scaleable visualisation system can start at around $1.5 million?

Room or Wall?

Fakespace Systems produce CAVE (computer applied virtual environment), a fully immersive visualisation environment. Graphics are projected in stereo onto the walls and the floor, and viewed with stereo glasses.

They also created RAVE, (reconfigurable advanced visualisation environment), a system of independent large-screen stereoscopic display modules that can be rearranged to create different viewing configurations.

CAVE is said to be well suited for instrumentation or ergonomic design because the designer can create the interior of, for example, a car because there are sides to the CAVE, just as there are sides to a car.

‘The CAVE allows a single car designer to sit inside a full size, virtual mock up of a car interior – a perspective not possible using desktop monitors,’ says Mark Hall, marketing communications, Fakespace Systems.

‘A WorkWall (which enables large-scale and 1:1 visualisation for group presentations and collaborative design reviews), is scaleable and as such is used to review outside or exterior perspectives where you can display a full size car exterior, and judge its style and colour.’

‘A Wall can be used to visualise a car or aircraft interior but the fully immersed perspective is lost. The RAVE allows both to happen.’

‘A car body stylist wants a seamless display for 1:1 scale viewing of the exterior. A WorkWall can do this as a CAVE cannot provide the continuous view. RAVE, by design, has separate modules that will result in a slight seam being visible when the modules are in Wall mode. Seams would be objectionable to a stylist.’

Hall adds that a three-channel WorkWall can be driven with slightly less computing power than a CAVE or RAVE, so the cost is lower. Also, software packages for a multi-planar CAVE are limited, whereas many packages will fit on a flat WorkWall.

Return to the desktop?

3D visualisation does not have to take place within the confines of a CAVE as 3D images can also be rendered on a desktop.

Stereographics produces the head mounted peripheral CrystalEyes, a wireless set of liquid crystal shutter eyewear that delivers stereoscopic 3D images on major UNIX platforms and Windows NT workstations in conjunction with compatible software.

‘We took CrystalEyes and adapted it to be used on a desktop,’ says Ian Matthew, director of marketing at StereoGraphics Corp.

‘We have two ways of achieving stereo in a CAD package: one is that the developer of the CAD package understands the value of stereo and implements it himself. A good example of this is Dassault Systemes’ CATIA as they’ve got stereo built-in native.’

‘Other packages have done part of the work and we’ve written a plug-in for use with AutoCAD, SolidWorks and Solid Edge that enables stereo to be turned on. Then you wear our glasses or put a screen on to the monitor to achieve the stereo effect whilst you’re in that package.’

Desktop displays do, however, have obvious limitations. ‘An 8x20ft WorkWall allows a single, tracked designer to walk around a 1:1 scale virtual prototype of a car – something they would see at about 1/20th scale on their desktop,’ says Mark Hall.

He adds: ‘interactive tools are much more useful when using a larger visualisation system than when using the desktop monitor. Users can get much more out of their data if they can interact in and with the data as opposed to using a keyboard/mouse paradigm which is a 2D interface. Using a 2D interface to interact with 3D data is simply not natural or effective.’

With such large-scale viewing possibilities available it should be safe to assume that many people could be involved in this viewing experience. But not necessarily so says Hall.

‘When talking about individual use versus collaboration, if motion tracking systems are added to a large scale display, the system essentially becomes optimal for a single user (not unlike being at the desktop) due to the fact that tracking systems and projectors cannot manage more than one tracked user at a time. ‘Only about two additional people close to the tracked viewer can still share in the experience,’ he adds.

What’s next?

So will we have real-time holograms in 5 to 10 years? ‘Probably not, but significant progress should be made in the way of images,’ claims Hall.

Hall believes that as computing power goes up, the more realistic images will be. Similarly, as computing power goes down in price, so should the cost of immersive solutions.

‘How users interact with the data will change dramatically, and that is why Fakespace is spending efforts on this area,’ says Hall. ‘Wireless devices will be usable and affordable, and a mouse and keyboard will no longer be used with the immersive environments because other, more intuitive devices will be more useful.’

A question of choice

‘When you take the right software application and team it with the right interaction device, you immediately open up a whole new world of data exploration and interrogation for the user,’ comments Hall. ‘And isn’t that what this is all about? Getting more from your data?’