Immersive Virtual Reality
This week I saw something that not many engineers have – an immersive virtual reality 3D environment from IC.IDO, a newly acquired division of ESI. This technology is more than wii for engineers – there are true practical applications of this. But you’ll be hard pressed to get your hands on one any time soon. There are less than 100 of these environments in use so far, primarily at the large automobile manufacturers. I had to go to ESI HQ in Paris to see the demo. But you don’t really see the demo, it’s more like being in it.
The demo takes place in a darkened room where one wall is dedicated to a bright image of a 3D model. In this case, the model was a BMW car on an assembly line.
This picture shows me (on the left) with able demo pilot Andre Ruekert manning the controls and ESI’s communications manager Celine Gallerne in front of the virtual reality wall. We are all wearing 3D glasses to get the virtual reality experience, and it works. At life size scale you get the feeling of being right on the plant floor. Sort of like hi-tech manufacturing meets Roger Rabbit. (anybody get that reference?).
Andre was able to move us through the plant and right up to the car. He then walked us through the steps that an employee would go through to install a battery, ratchet in a bolt and install a gas tank. Throughout the demo he pointed out areas of possible interference between the virtual car design and the assembly process. This takes the concept of virtual prototyping one big leap further – all the way through assembly and even to maintenance.
Because there is a full 3D CAD model powering the demo, we were able to section the car in any direction to further investigate collision points. The demo had some analysis built in, showing strain points on hoses and even on the virtual factory workers who have to reach to perform certain tasks.
At this point Andre let me drive. I donned the master glasses and took on the hand-held units for a first pass at installing a gas tank. The cool thing about having the master glasses is that the model rotates everywhere you look. Crouching down, for example, shows you the underside of the car. Holding the controllers provide haptic feedback when you bump the virtual gas tank against the underside of the model.
The hardware set up
To make this experience come true, the team at IC.IDO has married a stereo rear-projection camera with two input computers. The computers display 2 synchronized versions of the CAD model. The models are presented 7cm apart on the projector (about the distance between your eyes) to produce the depth perception effect. The projector sits behind the semi-transparent wall so that people can view the model from the other side. It takes a pretty big room.
To manipulate the model somebody wears the master glasses. These have lights on them (see the picture above) that are read by the two motion cameras mounted on the upper right and left of the wall. You can see one of the cameras in the picture above Andre’s head. As the master moves his head, the imagery on the wall moves in concert.
To move the parts within the model, you use 2 heavily modded wii remotes. You can see those in Andre’s hands in the picture. The movement of the wii remotes are tracked by the same cameras as the headset. As you move the “hands” virtual hands appear on the screen to give you feedback on your movements.
Even the menu items are selected within the 3D environment using the wii controllers.
The company makes this experience sound all business on their web site “Interactive Virtual Reality solutions facilitate the decision making process of globally operating interdisciplinary teams in replacing physical prototypes, involving stakeholders of production and maintenance in early phases of the product development process and reducing communication barriers.”
That explanation doesn’t begin to do justice to what was without question the coolest technology demo I’ve ever experienced.
Watch a Video of a Similar Demo Below