Mike Evans takes a reality check on virtual environments
Attending Develop 3DLIVE at Warwick University gave me an opportunity to take a reality check, in the context of industry rather than games, on the state of the various realities: virtual (VR), augmented (AR) and mixed (MR). The dedicated conference streams for design visualization were packed and the topic was centre stage both in the keynotes and many exhibition stands.
Hardware, software and ecosystems
There was considerable attention on both hardware and software components. Microsoft’s Hololens and HTC’s Vive were widely showcased. Many presentations described the use of Chaos Group’s V-Ray and vrscans technologies in a wide variety of use cases, many of them in industry. However, I did notice that a lot of the promotional material from VR component companies still talks more about the games and entertainment industry rather than industrial applications.
Apart from the fascinating technology, the most significant development from these component companies was that they are beginning to create ecosystems. Various hardware and software development kits are being rolled out to permit haptic devices, audio effects and scanning of physical objects to be integrated into applications. For AR to be more widely used it is essential to be able to pick up information from the real objects in the use case, this should get easier as they gain IoT properties, if these can be integrated into the ecosystem.
Selling without products
One theme was the use of industrial VR/AR/MR to sell in the absence of the physical product.
Jaguar’s Sandy Boyes’ keynote described the I-PACE concept vehicle launch to the automotive press. Instead of the usual five minutes in the driving seat for a select handful of the 200 attendees every journalist had a VR headset. They all experienced simultaneously a review of the vehicle, all before the physical car was revealed.
Other speakers from Porsche and Zerolight described experiments with car showrooms in high footfall shopping centres. Here sitting a prospect in a real driving seat in a mock up and then adding a VR/MR experience showed it could generate more commitment than visits to out of town retail showrooms. The ability of the VR experience to demonstrate the customer’s selected options trumps the physical experience of seeing a less favoured combination. It has the added advantage of demonstrating the upsell options as part of the experience.
Both Rapid Images and Optitex showed live use cases in the fashion industry. The simulation of clothing draped on a manikin is used to select which fashion ideas to include in a collection, get quickly into fabrication, and create merchandising set-ups in stores. The ability to adapt patterns to fit different sizes and visualize different colourways is effective. Capturing the look and feel of fabric, especially when made up from different pattern pieces into garments draped on an avatar is still at the frontiers of the state of the art. Modelling the stretch of fabric, the tautness and torsion in stitching and scanning fabric are development issues. Convincing visualizations that combine draping with movement is still a little over the horizon.
State of the art
Looking at the overall state of the art for industrial AR/VR/MR, in my opinion, the hardware is not quite there yet. The potential industrial use cases are in the thousands and there are demonstrations of several hundred use cases with many in at least limited production. However, the effort to develop a system for each case is still too high for widespread adoption. From the industrial user point of view, it is still a project business rather than a product business.
I have no doubt that VR/AR/MR will be ubiquitous but the question is ‘when’ not ‘whether’. Gradually ecosystems are evolving. For me, ‘when’ will come where a better environment for software developers combines with haptic and audio integrated into lighter, more comfortable headsets. The industry needs a killer application. My best guess is that solving the fashion industry’s desire to get a consumer to commit on-line to a purchase without the right of cost-free return might just be that killer application.
Disclosure: Microsoft and Chaos Group are Cambashi clients.