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Molding new car designs with virtual reality

Gadh by terminal

Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Rajit Gadh, who is experimenting with using virtual reality software for automotive design applications. (large image)

An engineer in Detroit and another in Los Angeles, collaborating on a new design for a prototype sports car, log on to the same three-dimensional computer "studio." With voice commands, hand gestures and other computer aided design tools, they begin sculpting next year's model in cyberspace. They hash out differences, experiment with different designs and produce a prototype only a few steps away from production.

The ground rules for this futuristic scenario are being developed today in Rajit Gadh's design and virtual prototyping laboratory. Gadh, a UW-Madison mechanical engineering professor, has support from the National Science Foundation and Ford Motor Company to develop automotive design applications with virtual reality software.

Virtual tools being explored by Gadh include a "hand" that will follow an engineer's gesture, and a voice-activated system with a vocabulary of several hundred words. In addition to creating accurate, multi-dimensional designs, the program could also be made to simulate physical properties, such as the impact of a door slamming.

Auto manufacturers see virtual reality as a powerful tool that could allow engineers in remote locations to have real-time collaboration on car designs. It would also allow engineers to actually create the prototype models, rather than handing over the blueprints to artists. The end result could narrow the gap between design advances and production. Right now, that lag time is three years. Reducing that gap could give a company a major jump on competitors.