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Virtual Design has Real Potential for New Products

Rajit Gadh wants to free design engineers from the mouse and keyboard, giving them an approach to computer design as natural as chatting with a colleague.

The concept is developing in Gadh's research lab with a new design initiative using the tools of virtual reality. Gadh, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering , assembled a new "virtual design studio" with the aid of a $132,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Gadh held a workshop last week for more than a dozen companies interested in the technology, including representatives from Ford, Chrysler, Kodak, Raytheon and Texas Instruments.

Rajit  Gadh

Rajit Gadh (large image)

Most people think of virtual reality as mere fun and games, like the entertainment programs that draw people into a 3-D digital universe. But Gadh said the technology has quietly crept into corporate R&D, where hundreds of companies - especially in the auto and aerospace industries are using it in the transition between design and production.

"Most virtual reality systems are for looking at the results of a design, because it gives people a good 'fly-through' of how the product looks and fits together," Gadh says. It is useful, for example, in catching design glitches before they reach the production line.

"But trying to design something with virtual reality is much, much more complicated," he says. "What we're trying to do is bring very natural qualities to the design process - using the human voice and hand movements to make commands, rather than a keyboard and mouse pad."

His team is currently creating "interface definitions" that help the computer recognize all the different voice and movement commands needed for design. A second project is modeling product shapes using a high-speed geometry program developed by Gadh and his students.

The studio is composed of a 60-inch inclined screen that looks much like a conventional drafting table. The designer wears glasses that enhance the three-dimensional look of the images, and a glove that makes hand movements appear on the screen. Taking a page from the symphony conductor, the designer uses hand gestures and voice commands to create, modify and move their designs.

VR of injection molded part

An example of an injection molded part (simplified panel of a portable computer). (large image)

Gadh says virtual designing could provide companies with several advantages. For fleshing out a design concept, the system could be used without the complex training needed in computer-assisted design. It could also allow engineers in remote settings to collaborate by sharing the same virtual "space" in real time.

But its biggest advantage is speed, Gadh says. Modifying a product design could be done in minutes, compared to the hours needed to pore through CAD programs. For companies that thrive on "what-if" scenarios, and need fast turnover between concepts and final products, Gadh says virtual reality could allow companies to explore many ideas without driving designers crazy.

Better technology for cars emerges all the time, from anti-lock brakes to air bags. But if companies can speed up the time it takes to incorporate them into new car lines, they gain a major jump on competitors, says Gadh.

The lab is far from creating next year's model in virtual reality. Once they perfect making basic shapes for parts, they will work on programs that model assembly and, eventually, total product designs. That's a daunting task for an automobile, which can have as many as 30,000 parts, Gadh says.