Augmented, Mixed or Virtual Reality: How Do Companies Decide Which New Tech Is Right for Them?
Andrew Wheeler posted on March 29, 2018 | | 1930 views

CAVE, Powerwall, Headset or Tablet?

Virtual reality has been used by large engineering firms and manufacturing organizations for more than 20 years, primarily in the form of expensive cave automatic virtual environment (CAVE) and Powerwall systems.

At some point in time the decision would have been made to go either CAVE or Powerwall. That could be due to price point, experience required or data limitations – but the process and journey had to start somewhere. The same is true with the new low-cost devices that are emerging and slowly being introduced in to the world of engineering and manufacturing.

The new technology is far from established and constantly evolving, but which one is right? Which use cases best suit? Are CAVES and Powerwall’s a thing of the past or will they always have their place? Will those that use them today decide to transition to the new devices or stand fast? There are so many questions that need to be considered.

A Little Bit of Background

After Facebook purchased Oculus Rift for more than USD$2 billion in 2014, hype and anticipation grew in the gaming industry, purveyors of CAVE and Powerwall systems started to take note of this development as the practicality, performance and price-point of these new devices was becoming apparent.

In the next two years, demand began to grow as HTC Vive entered the fray with a developer’s edition of the HTC Vive. Consumer versions of the two most popular headsets were released within a week of each other—Oculus Rift on March 28, 2016 and HTC Vive on April 5, 2016.

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, so 3D data created for the more traditional VR suites doesn’t work well on the headsets - if at all.

In the week between the release of the first consumer editions of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets, the developer edition of Microsoft HoloLens was released to the public, catapulting Mixed Reality (MR) to the forefront of emerging, headset-based, dynamic visualization technologies. A holographic representation in a ‘real world’ environment was now possible without the need for being fully immersed in a VR headset, CAVE or Powerwall and with the added ability of being ‘mobile’ at an affordable price.

CAVE and Powerwall systems have two disadvantages compared to the new headsets like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift: they’re stationary with a limited number of users, and a limited amount of use cases. (Image courtesy of TCU.)
CAVE and Powerwall systems have two disadvantages compared to the new headsets like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift: they’re stationary with a limited number of users, and a limited amount of use cases. (Image courtesy of TCU.)

Companies who had spent decades producing content for CAVE and Powerwall systems have had to adapt to the new gaming engine formats in order to create useful applications for designers and engineers on virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, as well as new augmented reality (AR) enabled devices and mixed reality (MR) headsets like Microsoft HoloLens.

Theorem Solutions are in an interesting position to create new experiences for low-cost devices like HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Microsoft HoloLens. (Image courtesy of Theorem Solutions.)
Theorem Solutions are in an interesting position to create new experiences for low-cost devices like HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Microsoft HoloLens. (Image courtesy of Theorem Solutions.)

Creating data for the less expensive headset ecosystem meant understanding gaming engines like Unreal and Unity. Getting CAD data in to CAVE and Powerwall systems has always been an issue. The manipulation that is required is complicated and time intensive. The ability to be able save or export CAD data in its native form really isn’t enough to then simply open it in an application suitable for a CAVE or Powerwall system. The same is true for the new devices. Data has to be optimised to suit the device. Native data just won’t work.

Theorem Solutions, who have been creating data for traditional VR CAVEs and Powerwall systems for over 20 years, are now helping to bridge the gap between the traditional world of CAD, and that of the latest digital arena - creating data and experiences for the new technologies in the guise of an early adopter.

After all, everyone who is creating for the new headset ecosystem is in the same boat. That is, everyone is an early adopter, exploring the technology and creating new content carefully and methodically.

Part of being an early adopter is reaching out to engineering and manufacturing companies and tailoring new products for the new wave of headsets (and other mobile devices like tablets). By speaking with hardware manufacturers and end users, Stuart Thurlby, President of Theorem Solutions, has overseen the creation of a suite of Augmented, Mixed and Virtual Reality applications that are being currently being used by design and engineering teams, from clients that include automotive and aerospace companies, to help during proof of concept stages to work out which technologies and devices are right for their use cases.

Theorem Solutions Visualization Experience for Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality

One of these applications is the Visualization Experience, which is a Mixed-Device application for AR, MR, and VR. The application allows users to visualize CAD and PLM data on a variety of devices and in many use cases. By overlaying digital information on top of physical objects using either AR or MR, use cases for apps like these have grown to include design reviews, manufacturing training, instructional assembly and repair. The App can also be used for fully immersive VR experiences if the use case requires.

Design Review Use Cases in Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality

Starting with design reviews, there are a few fundamental things to consider when using a visualization experience for Augmented or Mixed Reality.

The design review begins with either a completely digital representation or that of a “digital twin” use case. In an automotive company, if a design team has an asset like a 3D model of a vehicle, they can use AR and MR to overlay the digital version on either a physical model or clay model. Then they are empowered for reviewing the data as a group, making design decisions collaboratively and efficiently, because they can see the digital model overlaid on top of a physical model or environment.

Accuracy is always important when overlaying digital 3D models to their intended physical environment. But it isn’t just the quality of the digital data that counts.

Thurlby expanded on this point, saying, “To make informed decisions, the digitally overlaid model must line up extremely well at a 1:1 ratio. A key consideration to note is that the accuracy of the digital twin on the physical object depends on the quality of the camera in the devices you’re using for tracking and mapping the physical environment and aligning the digital model.”

AR and MR applications run on a variety of devices, including Microsoft HoloLens, Windows, Android and iOS mobile devices (smartphones, tablets) and laptops. The software application delivers CAD and PLM data to a given device. Users can also display and link metadata from ERP sources. (Image courtesy of Theorem Solutions.)
AR and MR applications run on a variety of devices, including Microsoft HoloLens, Windows, Android and iOS mobile devices (smartphones, tablets) and laptops. The software application delivers CAD and PLM data to a given device. Users can also display and link metadata from ERP sources. (Image courtesy of Theorem Solutions.)

How It Works

First, the 3D model is either downloaded from the PLM system or from the file system to a server, depending on the end user. Say the asset is a 3D model of design changes to an existing vehicle. A design team gathers around the vehicle, and while they physically move around the vehicle, the changes in my position are sent by the server, and the original base 3D model doesn’t lose quality. Of course, you need the right AR or MR hardware, like a HoloLens, another head mounted display unit, or a tablet to benefit from a digital twin experience use case.

For a completely digital design review experience, it is possible to have groups of people using different devices, in different locations to review a design. One person will have control of the digital object, but can pass control to others. Each member on the review is represented within the ‘digital room’ by avatars, and have their own individual viewpoint and perspective of the object - depending upon where they are in relation to it- but their view is of the digital object in their own physical space. The user with control can manipulate and interrogate the object for the others to see and then pass control if necessary.

Compatible devices also include Windows, iOS and Android smartphones, but they don’t really seem like dynamic enough devices for designers and engineers interested in using the Visualization Experience for design reviews—especially in automotive and aerospace- so the likelihood is that Mixed Reality headsets and tablets are best suited.

But does this collaborative viewing experience for design reviews scale up? And how many people can have the AR experience? After all, CAVE and Powerwall systems can have a fair number of users for virtual design reviews.

It turns out that the number of users able to view the digital representation or digital twin during a design review really depends on the strength of their networks and servers. If you have a dozen people on a design review distributed around the world, the experience will perform as well as their network can perform.

It’s easy to imagine how collaborative design reviews for entirely new features or products using AR and MR would communicate the subtleties and nuances of a 3D model that are hard for some decision makers to engage with. (Image courtesy of Theorem Solutions.)
It’s easy to imagine how collaborative design reviews for entirely new features or products using AR and MR would communicate the subtleties and nuances of a 3D model that are hard for some decision makers to engage with. (Image courtesy of Theorem Solutions.)

Sometimes, design teams are just reviewing a new configuration of an existing product. At certain points in the product design lifecycle, especially in the automotive industry, only a configuration change is necessary.

Thurlby spoke about using Visualization Experience for configuration changes used by clients of Theorem Solutions, saying, “If you think about an existing vehicle, most vehicles during their lifetime, probably get an update or refresh of their external and internal features. If you have the existing physical vehicle in front of you, designers and engineers can overlay digital changes such as lights, and see the changes overlaid on the physical car. This makes it much easier to collaboratively add input.”

Improving Manufacturing Processes with Augmented and Mixed Reality

Besides automotive industry clients, the new headset ecosystem has a real opportunity to improve a client’s manufacturing processes within the aerospace industry outside of legacy CAVE and Powerwall systems.

There are a few key characteristics of a typical assembly build use case in aerospace that lend themselves to Mixed Reality headset devices.

One of them is the work instructions that communicate the process of assembling products to each individual operative on the workshop floor. By leveraging Microsoft HoloLens to overlay digital work instructions on top of the physical models, the operator on the floor can walk through each stage of the assembly process with precise instructions. By combining manufacturing execution system data with 3D CAD and or PLM data, workers have a precise technical visualization of how to assemble each component of a particular product.

Improving Efficiency and Accuracy of Repair Services

Since Mixed Reality can be used by aerospace clients to improve manufacturing processes like building assemblies, it’s easy to see how the new technology could be used for services like repair, which requires disassembling. It’s basically the same process of using the Visualization Experience in HoloLens, except with digitally overlaid instructions for disassembly and repair.

Other Possible Use Cases for the Visualization Experience in AR, MR and VR

Other possible use cases for Visualization Experience include training, sales and marketing. If your company is training employees to use an expensive physical product of a limited number, simulating different scenarios to train employees on a digital version of the product can save time and prepare trainees who are able to become valuable employees more quickly in advance of using the physical product.

Software like the Visualization Experience, used in conjunction with headsets like the HTC Vive or Microsoft HoloLens, could be used to promote new products that may be too unwieldy or expensive to transport to different events and assemble at showcases.

Webinar on How to Start your Journey in AR, VR and MR

Preparing 3D data for CAVES and Powerwall’s has given Theorem Solutions a unique perspective on empowering designers, engineers, manufacturers and technicians with software and experiences for latest AR, MR and VR based devices and headsets such as Microsoft HoloLens and HTC Vive.

It’s still early in the game for the new head mounted display units (HMDs) and hand held devices, and the technology is promising but not yet well understood or adopted. Theorem has prepared a webinar that addresses the potential challenges and limitations of the new technology and what needs to be considered when starting the journey.

The aim is to get people thinking about the impact that these new technologies can have on an organisation. How using proof of concept for each device type will help to define uses cases and buy-in based on established business processes, whilst leveraging existing CAD and PLM assets. Most importantly, why remaining device agnostic in an ever evolving digital realm is the safest route as the market and technology continues to change so rapidly.

To Summarize

To replace old methods of doing things like performing design reviews, manufacturing, service and repair with 2D displays means that the new tech and devices must each be tried and tested in order to gain adoption, understanding and the ability to make informed decisions.

In the short-term, the new tech will not replace CAVES and Powerwall’s, they too are at the beginning of their own journey- but their journey is driven by the consumer gaming market and not the engineering and manufacturing market. Competing with the hype of what people think is possible and what is actually possible will always be an issue out of the control of the end user.

Click here to register for the webinar:

http://www.theorem.com/Digital-Realities/starting-the-ar-mr-vr-eng-journey.htm

Theorem Solutions has sponsored this post. They have no editorial input to this post. Unless otherwise stated, all opinions are mine. —Andrew Wheeler


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