26 January 2005

Designing Workspaces

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It is the ultimate viewing tool for designers and engineers. Models can be examined and tested thoroughly in three dimensions, before they are built in the workshops

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It is the ultimate viewing tool for designers and engineers: virtual reality. Models can be examined and tested thoroughly in three dimensions, before they are built in the workshops. But while the automotive industry has embraced this technology, others have been reluctant to adopt it. The Information Society Technologies (IST) project VIEW OF THE FUTURE aims to make virtual reality more accessible for every designer and engineer.

Stuttgart, Germany. At the Fraunhofer Institute of Industrial Engineering, Joachim Deisinger enters their treasure trove: a six-sided room, where images are projected on each wall. With specially designed glasses, Deisinger dives into a very realistic virtual world.

The computers that create images in the room are so powerful that the user can not only move in the virtual world, but can also move virtual objects. He can draw virtual models, change their designs and examine them from every angle. All he needs are two specially created instruments, made at the Fraunhofer Institute. These tools are crucial for the work in the virtual world as in three dimensions it is impossible to use a normal keyboard or a mouse.

Although Deisinger can give an impressive presentation on the use of the tools, they are only a small part of the entire virtual reality package. The area surrounding the virtual reality room looks impressive: across three floors there is a massive wooden structure, where six huge video projectors screen the elements of the 3D-Images through an array of mirrors onto semi-transparent walls. It becomes clear why only a few companies have adapted this virtual world creator: it costs a fortune, more than one million Euros!

This is why the engineers of the Fraunhofer Institute of Industrial Design have also looked at ways to create a new designer’s workspace. Oliver Stefani, himself a trained industrial designer, knows the needs of his colleagues: to be able to be creative without being limited by computer software like CAD. In fact, Stefani is not a great fan of virtual reality himself: “Personally I prefer working with foam or clay models”, he says, “but the computer is great to make quick changes.” His aim is now to combine the advantages of the blue-collar design in the workshop with the advantages of a CAD system, by keeping the new workspace affordable for everyone.

The solution is that the designer sits in front of a special semi-transparent screen, about twice the size of a normal computer screen. From the front, a normal off-the-shelf video projector projects a slightly distorted image onto the screen. Only when Stefani puts some special polarized glasses on, does he see the full 3D-vision just in front of him.

The second challenge was to create a three-dimensional mouse. While a normal computer mouse can transmit the movements from a ball that is touching the table’s surface, the three-dimensional mouse had no such reference. The only way to track the movement of the mouse through the virtual 3D space is by tracking it with video cameras. “We have made various tests”, says Oliver Stefani, ”and we ended up with a design that looks a bit like a dragon fly.”

But these input tools also need other characteristics besides good tracking. They must be comfortable, used when standing or sitting, or with the elbow on the table, to increase stability.

VIEW OF THE FUTURE seems an appropriate name for this IST-project. Because, for the first time, engineers have created a new workspace that mixes high-end virtual reality with an affordable price tag. The equipment costs less than 10,000 Euros, and may well revolutionise the workspace of industrial designers and engineers.

 

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