How Computer Aided Design (CAD) is Currently Playing into the Virtual Reality (VR) Industry

By Jessamy Baldwin

To say computer aided design (CAD) has come on leaps and bounds in the last 50 years would be a major understatement. The CAD world has undergone significant transformation in recent times and is ever evolving.  While CAD software initially enabled engineers, architects, artists and other creatives to generate designs in 2D and eventually 3D conditions, it has now taken a step further by utilising virtual world (VR) capabilities.

Why the transition? Well, the accuracy and reliability of designs can potentially be limited by regular CAD software. By going down the VR route, designers and consumers can create, improve and even test projects in a virtual space before they are created in the real world.

In this post, we’ll explore how the CAD and VR industries are feeding into one another right now, and look ahead at what’s to come.

History of VR

VR is by no means a new phenomenon. It was first introduced in the 50s via Morton Heilig’s Sensorama machine – the earliest known example of immersive, multimodal technology. Then, in 1968, the ground-breaking Sword of Damocles (a device which overlaid graphics onto the physical world) came to the forefront and ten years later, in 1978, the Aspen Movie Map (precursor to Google Maps) was introduced.

The term ‘virtual reality’ was eventually coined in 1987 by Jason Lanier when he founded VR company VPL Research. It wasn’t until the 90s when the VR industry boomed via the gaming world. However, with other types of gaming consoles striking more of a chord with the public, things had come to a grinding halt by the millennium.

VR today

Nearly two decades later, the world was ready (ish) for VR.

Palmer Luckey brought VR back into mainstream discourse and regained the publics’ interest via the Oculus Rift device, which he eventually released in 2016. The Rift allowed users to fully immerse themselves in the VR experience whereby they could move (as opposed to simply look) around the virtual world.

There has since been an onslaught of VR products: Samsung Gear VR, Playstation VR, HTV Vive, Google Daydream and Cardboard to name a few. What’s more, the VR market was worth $1.9 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $22.4 billion by 2020.

Combining CAD and VR

Historically, VR has been associated with the gaming and entertainment worlds – for obvious reasons. ‘Experiencing’ a game is a hundred times better than merely playing one. However, the technology has branched out and is being utilised for design, architectural and engineering purposes.

The advantages of using VR for CAD are obvious. It allows users to create, view and edit projects in a virtual ‘safe’ space. They can visualize how their designs will appear at scale when compared with other virtual objects. An architect can walk through a virtual version of the building he/she is creating and a consumer can hold or even take apart a virtual product in their hands.

Being able to test and modify products or buildings etc. before they are manufactured or built can help save valuable time and money, whilst improving customer satisfaction. Moreover, the ability to spot any errors or faults before they actually materialise could prove invaluable from an efficiency perspective.

Indeed, research compiled by Loughborough University has found that the construction sector is successfully using VR across its myriad of design processes. The findings suggest that while the technology is still in early stages, it has huge potential to assist in the visualisation of building designs.

The theory behind the practice of utilising VR conditions for CAD is brilliant in theory, but the technical intricacies can be a barrier.

In fact, while it’s undoubtedly on the rise, the reason VR has not become hyper mainstream already is due to the complexity of the computing that’s required to support it.

Methods for integration of CAD and VR

Joint research by the University of Windsor, Canada and the University of Hong Kong found that there are currently two methods for integrating CAD and VR:

  • Use as a tool kit:VR is twinned with designs after they have been developed in the standard CAD environment. CAD models are created and subsequently imported into the digital space for virtual assessment and evaluation.
  • Designing in VR: Designers invent ideas completely in the VR space.

Real Life Examples

MakeVR, a virtual reality-based software, enables users to create designs in a virtual space by pulling, pushing or stretching, rather than generating them on a screen. Users can create three-dimensional objects in front of their eyes, in real time, thus saving time where they would have had to master complex CAD software to do the process.

Then there’s WakingApp’s ENTiTi platform which enables designers to create and view VR and Augmented Reality (AR) experiences without using any code. The platform is cloud based and the content is immediately available to view on mobile devices, GearVR, destop devices, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. The content can also be shared with friends, clients and colleagues.

Hong Kong-based manufacturer Infiniti showcased its 2015 offerings in a completely VR environment. Potential buyers could assess the vehicle fully, regardless of where they were geographically. They also had the chance to make customisations themselves. In terms of raising the customer experience bar, Infiniti went (and still are) going above and beyond – putting the consumer, literally, in the driver’s seat.

Looking to the future

As manufacturing, architectural and many other companies look to grow and improve their design processes and customer satisfaction levels, using VR for CAD will undoubtedly become more conventional.

There is talk that VR tools could enable engineers to carry out important analysis on structures and that consumers will be able to enjoy an even greater level of interactivity. Then there’s the development of AR, which goes even further to bringing CAD objects into the real world.

The developing relationship between CAD and VR is undeniably exciting both for those in the industry and consumers. Currently, VR remains relatively niche. It may take many more years for it to become mainstream (Mark Zuckerberg predicts 5-10 years). Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the ability to design, manufacture, sample and customise in the VR space will – at some point in the not so distant future – become the norm.

This article appeared on the GrabCad website on 14th August 2017.


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