Virtual reality systems move closer to the mainstream

  • 01-May-2009 08:54 EDT
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ICIDO’s systems let engineers examine virtual parts from many perspectives.

Virtual reality (VR) gives product developers the benefits of seeing real components without the cost of building prototypes. The systems that let developers explore designs in 3-D are coming down in cost, making VR more accessible for more companies.

VR is rapidly migrating from costly, dedicated cave facilities currently affordable only for labs or very large companies. More affordable equipment now fits in rooms in the headquarters of midsize companies. That is making it much simpler for engineers to examine components and systems from all angles, seeing how they look and fit together.

“Today, you can get a pretty good projection unit for $100,000 to $150,000,” said Ludger Hemesath, North America Vice President for ICIDO Inc. “Software from us is in the same range.”

That is still a big hit for many companies, but ICIDO’s software is popular throughout the transportation industries. In aerospace, customers include Boeing and Lockheed Martin, while the software is also used by off-highway equipment makers. Among the many automotive users are Ford and Volkswagen.

Most companies can see a payback in about six months, Hemesath said. That comes primarily when they detect issues that they can’t see on a flat CAD screen.

Prices are expected to fall, which should broaden the market. Costs are falling fairly rapidly as high-resolution digital video is transformed in the consumer markets.

“I believe three or four years from now prices will be less than $100,000 and will work off plasma TVs that can accept stereo input,” said Hemesath.

A big factor is that PC architectures now have the processing power to handle the large volumes of 3-D video displays. “Projectors are getting more inexpensive, and PC architectures are evolving,” Hemesath said.

Until the past few years, only powerful and expensive servers from SGI could handle the computational demands of virtual technology. But PCs with powerful graphics cards can now provide enough speed and resolution, bringing dramatically lower prices. NVIDIA graphics cards are popular for these systems, Hemesath noted.

Systems span a broad range of applications. For companies working with fairly simple components, the software can be run on a powerful laptop. As products get larger, bigger systems are required. If engineers are looking at the interactions of components on a large subsection or an entire vehicle, very powerful systems are needed.

“You’re handling massive amounts of data in real time, so you need a lot of processing and graphics capabilities,” Hemesath said.

Displays must be updated constantly to account for changes in the viewing angle of the observers. The 3-D glasses that help users see realistic images also provide a way to monitor the user’s location.

“We use IR cameras to track head position,” Hemesath said. “The cameras are mounted on the screen, and users wear glasses with micro IR reflectors.”

Another factor that is critical for an expanding market is software compatibility. As VR reaches into new areas, the number of CAD programs that will provide data for the system will expand. Translating this CAD data is a mainstay of VR systems.

“Our software sits on top of the mock-up software,” Hemesath said. “The secret of the technology is transforming CAD data to true 3-D files and doing it on the fly. We can work with any CAD format.”

The ICIDO software is about 200 MB in size. It can be upgraded with modules that address various technologies. “We provide different personalities—for ergonomics or for hoses and other parts that we make flexible so they behave like parts really behave,” said Hemesath.

The fast processing capabilities of today’s computers is being augmented by increasing bandwidth for communicating beyond the VR room. Many companies now want a number of remote design teams to work together on projects. That’s becoming easier as Internet speeds increase.

“Companies with labs in different cities hook things up so they can both see the same thing and work on data at the same time,” Hemesath said.

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