Attendees at the North American Auto Show experience new automotive model designs in virtual reality, immersing themselves in a virtual environment created by product design teams. (Image courtesy of Chevrolet.)
Given the waning hype surrounding the VR industry’s Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in gaming, media and entertainment, practical virtual reality applications for product design are slowly starting to emerge as popular, substantive and useful ways to increase the efficiency of workflows that benefit from immersive computing technology.
For example, automotive companies such as Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen , Chevrolet, Ford and Honda all used some form of virtual reality tech at the North American International Auto Show to immerse users in virtual representations of their latest car models.
Automotive companies using HMD’s for trade shows now underscores an important high-level transition from CAVE and Powerwall systems to HMDs, like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. After all, for impressing and educating the market via virtual reality, CAVE systems have a limitation in that they were not designed to be transportable, so the decision to pack up HMDs for trade shows is a no-brainer.
A product design team using HTC Vive to better understand the human-product interaction through immersive computing technology. HMDs, like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are becoming less expensive and more popular alternatives to CAVE and Powerwall systems. (Image courtesy of BMW.)
But one must understand the myriad ways in which product design teams traditionally use virtual reality. By understanding pain points and bottlenecks resolved by CAVE and Powerwall virtual reality systems in product design at automotive companies, one can then move to understanding the difficulties of transforming CAD-based CAVE and Powerwall workflows into comparable workflows using HMDs.
For companies who are used to building, designing and maintaining design data for CAVE and Powerwall systems, the common formats are Open GL-based and CAD graphic formats, and are both very different to those used by these new headsets. The new headsets are based on gaming engines like Unreal Engine, so 3D data created for the more traditional VR suites doesn’t work well on the headsets—if at all. This is the most common pain point of switching between CAVE and HMD systems.
If you are new to learning about VR for product design, remember that VR is neither a solution to every product design issue nor an unnecessary and impractical solution looking for a problem. It is a tool that allows product design team members to make decisions about virtual prototypes at a 1:1 scale that represent future manufactured versions. And remember, everyone at this point in the technology’s history is an early adopter.
Here are five key points to explore when interested in implementing a VR system for product design at your organization.
Be specific about what CAD-oriented product design workflows a VR system will improve
Since traditional CAD applications use WIMP systems (Windows, Icon, Menu, Pointer) as user interfaces for classic desktop rendering, point out how immersive computing technology will benefit your product design team. For example, CAD systems use WIMP to create and display intricate details and minutiae of a product design. This is great, but there is room for improvement. You could say that the reason WIMP applications are disadvantageous is that the 3D models are displayed on a 2D display, creating a dampening effect where a viewer’s ability to imagine the CAD data in three dimensions comes into play. Since this ability varies by practice and natural inclination, a solution is needed. You could expand on this point by arguing that even the best imagination cannot readily transfer 2D CAD data into 3D when the models or assemblies reach high levels of complexity and sophistication.
VR is particularly useful to product design teams when they are experimenting and interacting with the product. The ability to submerse oneself in a design and interact with a virtual prototype at a 1:1 scale is especially useful if there are no physical prototypes available. Another benefit of virtual prototyping is the ability to simulate real-world context outside of the digital prototype.
The cost of creating physical prototypes of different models can be tracked over the course of a quarter or annually and weighed against the investment capital needed to implement a virtual reality system over the same period of time. Keep this in mind for the ROI.
Know in detail whether your virtual reality needs are more detail or interaction oriented
Rendering a virtual product design at a high frame rate is important for interactive experiences that require a lot of movement on the part of the user. Understanding that there is a catch-22 between allocating resources for geometric complexity and frame rate.
If the goal of your virtual reality system is to show your product design from one perspective without too much movement needed, then your frame rate can be regarded as less of a priority than the level of geometric detail.
When VR is used by product design teams, they generally will deal with a low-frame rate if they can interact well with the geometry to examine design bottlenecks.
Understand whether the aesthetics of geometry are less important than geometry that meets technical specifications for practical product design decision-making
Product design workflows vary greatly, and the importance of aesthetics versus functionality needs to be understood well in advance. High-quality, fully detailed renderings are important characteristics that help communicate the aesthetic value of the digital prototype. Industrial designers and visual designers will be concerned with what a customer will impute about the product from characteristics that comprise the totality of aesthetics. They will want to understand and tweak how different material properties interact with different textures and colors. So, it makes sense that they would prioritize high-quality renderings for product design in virtual reality.
An employee from TechViz shows off their SOLIDWORKS-HTC Vive integration for improving product design at a tradeshow. HMDs are certainly easier to transport than a CAVE or Powerwall system, giving them one clear advantage. But loading highly-detailed CAD models is still slow and challenging. (Image courtesy of TechViz.)
Conversely to prioritizing form, traditional engineers will want the geometry to represent the total functionality of the product design. They will prioritize design-for-manufacturing questions about assembly, maintenance, repair and would want the design to be completely accurate at a 1:1 scale. They will want to use VR to simulate the functionality as detailed in the product’s technical specifications.
When preparing to implement a VR solution to your team’s product design workflows, this juxtaposition of competing priorities must be understood within the context of your organizations priorities—which depends on the type of products you build and the markets you service.
Striking a balance between the two will likely be necessary, and so prescribing different software packages for aesthetic-minded designer versus functionality-minded designers will be crucial to convince decision-makers at your organization.
Don’t expect that implementing a VR system at your organization will be easy
Though the cost of implementing a VR system for product design continues to go down, the capital required to build, operate and maintain is substantial. Getting people on board internally will be as challenging as convincing decision-makers in management to pony up capital will not go expeditiously.
ESI Group’s IC.IDO 11 package for HTC Vive is a scalable way to explore immersive engineering at a relatively low cost, especially when compared to the more expensive CAVE and Powerwall systems. (Image courtesy of ESI Group.)
Somebody has to spearhead the request for implementation. If this person or persons do get a greenlight and a budget to implement a VR system for product design, they should always be willing to show engineers and designers in their organization exactly how learning to use VR will help them expedite various workflows. People in organizations and institutions become set in their ways and are weary of adopting a new technology that purports to convenience them but instead does the opposite.
If you are the one who is pushing for a VR system, be prepared to sell everyone on its benefits. You have to demonstrate why VR is right for your product design team. VR can easily seem superfluous if a skeptical employee isn’t interested in trying it. Suggest pain points that VR can help them with informally, then do something like show them their own 3D design in VR to help them understand practical reasons for integrating VR into their product design workflow.
The challenge of finding existing ROIs shouldn’t deter you from creating your own
Once the VR system is maintained at your organization, track how often people are using it, what they are using for, and why they are using it on spreadsheets. These records can help you create estimates for potential gains. Calculate cost avoidance and be prepared for grey areas that require approximations. If a product design team finds a problem with a design in VR, it can be hard to determine whether or not the issue would have been found without the VR system. Compare VR usage with typical prototype cost data, and offset the cost of implementing, operating, maintaining and troubleshooting a VR system against the cost of physical prototyping.
Not only might VR help your product design team improve processes along the product’s lifecycle, but the team itself will benefit from learning the ins and outs of installing, operating, maintaining and repairing a VR system design to produce an ROI that justifies the expense in the first place.
Unfortunately for those seeking case studies about the ROI on a VR system for product design, companies are not usually in the business of giving away competitive advantages nor admitting that they made an expensive mistake.
VR is just a single, tool not a catchall solution for every bottleneck in product design. VR systems for product design are being adopting more frequently, so new hardware and software skills may eventually be required for navigating and getting the most out of immersive computing technology at your organization.