Eye-catching CAD

Researchers from two UK universities are developing technology that will track engineers’ eyes as they look at specific parts of their computer aided design (CAD) sketches and automatically suggest developments of that aspect.


Researchers from two UK universities are developing technology that will track engineers’ eyes as they look at specific parts of their computer aided design (CAD) sketches and will automatically suggest developments of that aspect.


Alison McKay, a professor of design systems from the University of LeedsSchool of Mechanical Engineering, and Steve Garner, a professor from the Open University, have been awarded £195,000 from the Leverhulme Trust to examine this technology.


‘Our starting point was thinking about what type of computer systems designers will be using in 15 or 20 years’ time,’ said McKay.


‘We believe that in the future, CAD systems will work alongside designers to stimulate and enhance their creativity by offering suggestions and highlighting alternative options right from the earliest point in the design process when they’re sketching out their ideas.’


The research builds on a prototype CAD system funded through the Designing for the 21st Century programme, a joint initiative between the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.


The Design Synthesis and Shape Generation (DSSG) project, which was led by McKay, produced the world’s first 3D-shape grammar-based design system.


The technology succeeded in overcoming a major limitation in current shape grammar-based systems: that of recognising ‘sub-shapes’ in early design sketches.


‘Sub-shapes or emergent shapes are those created when two or more shapes intersect,’ said McKay.


‘For example, if two squares overlap diagonally, we see a third square created in the middle.


‘But in conventional CAD terms, this middle square doesn’t exist, because it has not been previously defined in the programming and is therefore ignored by the CAD system, for design purposes.


‘But in real life, designers use such ambiguities within their sketches to inspire further design developments using their creativity and experience and we succeeded in developing a system that could assist that process from the start.’


The new project takes the DSSG software a radical step further by adding eye-tracking capability into the mix.


‘It’s a step that could ultimately see the designer and software working in complete creative harmony,’ added McKay.


‘When we’re interested in something or when part of a picture catches our eye, our eyes are naturally drawn back to that part several times over.


‘The eye-tracking device could detect this interest and intuitively make suggestions to inspire the design development without the designer having to interrupt his or her train of thought to instruct the computer to work on a certain part.


‘The designer wouldn’t have to physically interact with the software: the software would already be in tune, ready to support the creative process by suggesting new ways of seeing the possibilities a shape can offer.’