XR’s New Moment: Everyone Is on a Distributed Team Now
Andrew Wheeler posted on April 07, 2020 |
Is XR right for engineers and designers working from home?

COVID-19 is changing conferences, training and education.

Many global conferences are cancelled for the foreseeable future. Everyone is working from home. Mandatory stay-at-home orders are in place. There are no physical meetings right now. Teleconferencing is the new norm. Traveling is basically out of the question, yet work must continue.

All of a sudden and all at once, physical activities that would certainly be better than their virtual reality (VR) representations are unavailable. Due to the coronavirus, the interest in VR is ticking up in part out of necessity. VR has become a part of religious services, real estate showings, telemedical appointments, product launches and so on.

Are extended reality (XR) technologies like VR suddenly more appealing or interesting to people in this extending period of self-quarantine? Are they necessary?

The coronavirus pandemic is certainly changing things for the time being. Those who are fortunate enough to be healthy right now are tapping XR tech out of a sense of necessity, curiosity and experimentation.

Is XR Useful in Transforming the Physical to Virtual for Engineers Working at Home?

In certain ways, yes. Many of the tools for virtual teleconferencing in large groups exist in other forms. Zoom conferences are used, but they have prominent and disruptive vulnerabilities.

Engineers are educating themselves in reaction to the coronavirus and social distancing for new ways to connect through immersive tech. For example, the IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces (IEEE VR) was not cancelled like many other conferences. Instead, the conference transformed and took place as an all-virtual event. Given the nature of the conference, it, of course, was uniquely positioned to offer some VR content to its digital attendees.

A conference centered around VR and 3D user interfaces is uniquely positioned to do so with less hiccups than a conference on agriculture or marine biology. The conference was online and featured live-streaming presentations (not unusual), but it also featured a 3D user interface contest hosted entirely in a digital social construct. It did this using technology that would have been available for attendees under normal circumstances.

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) scheduled its March meeting in Cancún to discuss the rules and policies of the internet. Due to the coronavirus, they moved the meeting to Los Angeles and held the mother-of-all conference calls. Dialing in from 150 nations, 3,000 people joined in this massive Zoom call for four days. They listened to policy translated live in real-time in three languages while callers from each nation received frenetically written transcriptions to stay up to date.

Imagine the hardware, software and bandwidth connections needed to perform a conference in VR. Facebook, which owns Oculus, recently began inviting people to a closed alpha test version of Facebook Horizon. Users design their own avatars to interact with other users, but they aren’t teleconferencing about anything that is remotely like ICANN’s massive Zoom conference call. They are playing games and building communities with baked-in software.

XR may provide an extra benefit over web-conferencing tools like Zoom. But wait a minute. There are some obvious downsides to VR over teleconferencing. The most immediate issue is not everyone has a headset. They come bundled with expenses and a learning curve. Teleconferencing by phone on platforms like Zoom requires much less bandwidth. Phone conferencing is a tried and true technology that works, and VR is still going through a large period of development.

Performing product design reviews on distributed teams who are building large scale 1:1 models in industries like aerospace and automotive benefit the most from presenting virtual prototypes and product designs in virtual reality. Seeing digital prototypes and product designs of smaller products in three dimensions with a VR headset has some advantages over viewing them on a 2D display screen. The engineer or designer is intimately familiar with the 2D designs drawn from 3D software like Onshape.

Onshape and Magic Leap Collaboration

(Image courtesy of Onshape.)

(Image courtesy of Onshape.)

Onshape may be the best choice for performing design reviews to a distributed product design team. Onshape was built from the cloud up. It’s used by thousands of designers and engineers and is accessible from basically any device with an internet connection. It is SaaS without any hybrid local storage needed, and no software needs to be installed.

A massive 3D design conference like ICANN’s massive teleconference call would have to use Onshape. Parent company PTC hosts a Robots to the Rescue competition that is only available to FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition students (K-12). They are hosting it on Onshape.

In fact, Onshape announced a partnership with Magic Leap in 2018 to create a 3D product design app. Presumably still in development, the app is for Magic Leap One Creator Edition (USD 2200) and allows users to see CAD models of product designs overlaid on the user’s real environment. This ideal combination is expensive due to the cost-per-person of each Magic Leap headset, but it seems like a useful combination of hardware and software for distributed product design teams in our current situation.

Currently, there is no VR application for Onshape conferencing. There is no Zoom for VR. Perhaps during the coronavirus pandemic, a form of conferencing VR will emerge for mass consumption. Development of the Onshape Magic Leap CAD app is ongoing.

Microsoft’s AltSpace VR

(Image courtesy of Microsoft/AltspaceVR.)
(Image courtesy of Microsoft/AltspaceVR.)

The first Educators in VR Summit happened two months ago in Microsoft’s AltSpace VR. AltSpace VR is free, and Microsoft provided support for the conference. The virtual conference was six days long and included 170 speakers connected with more than 2,000 attendees. There were 150 separate events for virtual attendees. One of the events was called “How to Produce a Virtual Conference.” Perhaps virtual conferences will become the new norm for the time being. The event brought attendees through a blueprint for switching from real-world conferencing to virtual conferencing, virtual meetings and virtual workshops, referencing social changes brought on by the spread of COVID-19.

Existing VR CAD Tools

(Image courtesy of IrisVR.)
(Image courtesy of IrisVR.)

There are a few products out there on the market already that can be used to perform product design reviews in VR. There’s IrisVR, a startup based out of New York. Its Prospect product offers the building industry VR software for immersing teams converting different 3D model designs into 1:1 scale walkthroughs from different 3D file formats.

(Image courtesy of Improov.)
(Image courtesy of Improov.)

There’s Improov, which has a flagship product that allows users to teleconference via VR and see different product designs based on common 3D file formats.

Foretell Reality has a VR platform designed for enterprise-level interaction. The platform allows remote teleconferencing via VR.

Pagoni VR‘s Chimera is a VR teleconferencing software tool for remote teleconferencing.

Bottom Line

The only benefits for XR over conferencing would be for design reviews in industries that design new, large-scale products. The immersive environment is perfect for large-scale 1:1 virtual prototypes. Other teleconferencing software is adequate compared to XR because of the high cost of entry. Everyone has a phone, laptop, computer and internet connection, but not everyone has a VR or AR headset, nor the internet bandwidth to support an XR teleconference.

If you are interested in checking out XR for virtual prototyping and virtual teleconferencing, here’s a few points to get you started.

1.      Check for interoperability issues between your design software and different headsets on the market already.

2.      Remember that building an XR team will mean an overhead expense for experimentation or implementation, depending on the skill level of your employees.

3.      To understand how the needs and capabilities of your existing internal skillset, workforce, hardware and software, create an implementation plan for integrating an XR pilot program.

4.      Every VR pilot program should be created in order to show a return on investment (ROI).

5.      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 VR system over the same period. Keep this in mind for the ROI.

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