Technical advances are making immersive 3D visualisation, once the preserve of the wealthiest corporations, accessible to a wider range of engineers. Berenice Baker reports.
Engineers working in companies without millions to spend on the latest design systems have long looked on in envy at the increasingly jaw-dropping array of 3D tools available to their bigger spending counterparts.
Stories of designers wandering around immersive 3D environments that simulate every aspect of even complex engineering prototypes are most likely to provoke the reaction ‘very nice if you can afford it’.
Now a UK specialist in display technology claims that a range of benevolent factors, including increasingly sophisticated projection systems, ever-growing computer processing power and more advanced 3D engineering software has brought it down to a cost that won’t have the finance director reaching for the smelling salts.
HoloVis International has put together a budget version of the type of high-end visualisation system it supplies to the likes of Jaguar Land Rover.
By donning a pair of glasses equipped with tracking antennas, a designer or customer can see all the details of a product from images generated using Autodesk software and projected in high resolution on a 4.7m x 2.5m flat screen. The viewer can walk round a car, for example, adjusting the camera angle, lighting and surrounding environment and trying different colour schemes.
As the wearer ducks down, stands up, walks round and even peers inside to try out different interior trims, the goggles detect the viewing angle and give a realistic, solid-looking image projected in high definition on a flat screen. The antennas sport reflective balls, whose position is picked up by infrared cameras over the screen.
The high-end — and high-cost — application of HoloVis’s technology is in a computer-assisted virtual environment (CAVE) where the user is immersed from all sides, including in some cases the floor and ceiling. Surround sound can also be added. HoloVis has already installed a CAVE for Jaguar Land Rover to use in the design of new vehicles, and has another on its own premises.
Though full CAVE systems cost millions, according to HoloVis the constituent equipment for a single room-wide screen demonstrator now comes in at less than £30,000 and takes less than a day to set up.
In single-screen mode, within a 90º or so viewing angle in front of a screen, someone wearing the glasses can move around and get close to the virtual object under scrutiny. Unlike a 3D cinema film designed for multiple viewers, which would be distorted from any angle except in front, the position detector on the goggles adjusts the image to give a perfect view to the wearer. To someone not wearing them, the screen displays two images, increasingly distorted as to be almost unrecognisable as the car in question, as the wearer moves to the extremes of the viewing area.
The high-resolution images are back-projected by two Sony 4096 pixel xenon lamp projectors. The glasses are supplied by US company American PaperOptics. They use circular polarising filters that match the filters used in front of the Sony projectors. The tracking device on the glasses is a separate system provided by German company ART, which uses infrared and cameras that pick up the reflections from reflective balls attached to the glasses.
It is behind the scenes that the heart of the set-up beats, or rather hums loudly with cooling fans. Racks of Sun Microsystems processors actively recalculating the image in real time jostle for position alongside the dual Sony high-resolution projectors.
This next generation of digital prototyping allows any mistakes to be ironed out in the digital environment before committing to even a first clay. In fact, car designers that have used the technology, such as Jaguar Land Rover, have found they only need to make one physical clay right at the end of the design process.
Paul Hetherington from HoloVis International said: ‘There are so many different technologies that make up our solutions. It’s moving at an incredible rate — computing power is an obvious example of that, and projection technology is not far behind. We can say for certain that 3D immersive environments in high-resolution is a growth area.
‘The CAVE we have at our demonstration centre in the Midlands has a floor projector. Like the Jaguar CAVE we have three vertical walls and a floor, whereas Jaguar has a ceiling. It specifically needed that for sitting in a vehicle simulating looking around the cockpit. We thought a more generic use of the CAVE environment would be to have a floor. As you walk onto that floor, you’re walking onto a 1.5 tonne piece of glass with a screen laid on top of it, so it takes a bit of getting used to when an immersive environment is all around and below you.’
HoloVis has established academic collaborations too. The company recently installed a CAVE system for Cardiff University and is in talks with Northampton and Salford. It also keeps a look out for university projects to keep ahead of emerging trends.
‘This kind of technology is becoming more widely understood and appreciated. A few years ago people didn’t know it existed,’ claimed Hetherington.
Yoko Yamazaki from Sony Professional admitted the advance of its projection technology into the engineering design space had taken it by surprise: ‘We are latecomers to the industrial design industry. We introduced the 4096 pixel projector a few years ago and at that time we didn’t expect such an enthusiastic response.’
The xenon lamp used in Sony’s high-end projectors is the same as that used in cinema projectors because of the pure, natural colour. Jaguar Land Rover’s CAVE uses eight projectors and 30 PC platforms to get full stereo surround images.
Though the initial outlay for a full-size system could be huge, Hetherington is optimistic that demand for this type of advanced visualisation will continue despite the tightening purse-strings of many engineering firms.
‘Despite the economic downturn, people are still investing in this technology,’ he claimed. ‘If you take the automotive industry as an example, vehicle programmes still move forward. They have to slow production for the time being — the economic climate is forcing that — but they can’t ignore the fact that when the climate recovers again, they’ve got to have a new vehicle available. Our solution is still very much sought-after in order to maintain that competitive edge within themselves and to keep their design processes effective.’
For customers who cannot afford their own CAVE, there is the opportunity to hire facilities. The primary function of HoloVis’s on-site suite is as a support mechanism for the Jaguar CAVE. Any new software that is rolled out for testing happens in HoloVis’s offices first before being rolled out to a production environment.
Hetherington said: ‘Using 3D design software has changed the product life cycle. Though there’s a big initial outlay in a system, Jaguar has already identified that its CAVE has paid for itself — it’s saved money it would have spent on the design process if it hadn’t had those facilities.’
Those involved believe new applications for the technology will quickly emerge. 3D design technology initially borrowed extensively from the computer gaming industry. The future could see digital processing techniques, hardware and models incorporated back into entertainment packages.
‘You can see it already when you look at the quality of the visual experience you get in games these days. Racing games, for instance, use real models and performance data from manufacturers,’ said Robin Oldroyd, an Autodesk design solutions consultant.
‘Autodesk has great positioning for this as we have this engineering data, the industrial design side and the media entertainment side, and they’re always fighting for position for the latest and best technology.’