The process of designing and manufacturing products is no longer confined to the real world.
Technological advances in computing and visualization devices mean that it is now possible to use virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) to help design teams create products that would have been inconceivable not so long ago.
First let’s clear up any confusion about what the terms VR, AR and MR actually mean and how they can be applied to product design.
Virtual reality (VR)
VR is a term that refers to any fully immersive experience, using computer-simulated, real-life content or a combination of both. It usually involves some kind of visual interaction between the user and an imaginary, virtual world.
How VR will enhance product design
Virtual reality is already beginning to transform the way certain products and parts are designed. For instance, mechanical engineers can virtually assemble and try out parts that interact with each other, making sure that their design concepts are feasible before moving on to fabricating a prototype. As the technology advances and the models become ever more realistic, real-life physical prototypes may not be required anymore.
Another way in which VR is enhancing product design is by bringing to life a traditionally static task. Even computerized 3D models have been limited in creating fully moveable and interactive objects. VR allows complete movement and even a hands-on approach to design that makes it far more adaptable. It’s likely that design tools will soon be available to allow engineers to adjust and test designs while still fully immersed in the virtual environment.
Autodesk is a pioneering presence in the VR design space, developing software packages such as 3ds Max that can make virtual representations of product designs and VRED that is specialist 3D virtual prototyping software for mechanical engineering.
Augmented reality (AR)
AR refers to the process of overlaying imagined or computer-generated content onto the real world. An example of this that most people are probably familiar with is the Pokémon Go app that was released a couple of years ago, allowing players to collect Pokémon figures in real-life locations, by using their smartphone camera in certain locations.
How AR will enhance product design
AR will be especially useful during the concept and prototype stages. It will allow designers to visualize how the product will look or work in-situ. For instance, if a designer is creating a new kitchen appliance, they can overlay the concept or prototype into a real kitchen to get an idea of how it will look and function in real life.
At the moment, most designs are created on a flat-screen with 3D rendering software. AR software will allow designers to enter into a semi-immersive environment that will give a much clearer picture of how the product will work in reality.
Mixed reality (MR)
MR is easily confused with AR, as they are similar concepts. MR refers to imagined content overlaid onto the real world, but the main difference that separates it from AR is that the two ‘worlds’, or objects in both environments, can interact in real time. This article helps explain the concept of MR in more detail.
How MR will enhance product design
In a similar way to AR, MR will help designers most during the initial concept stage, and especially during the prototyping stage. As technology progresses and the computer-generated reality begins to interact more realistically with the ‘real world’, virtual product prototypes will be able to undergo more thorough concept validation and testing at an earlier stage in the design process. This will be extremely useful for safety-critical devices or complex designs, where it may be expensive and time-consuming to build and rebuild physical prototypes.
The future of VR, AR and MR in design and manufacturing
VR, AR and MR are still in their technological infancy, so there’s a long way to go in developing and using them to their full potential for both design and production.
The future for design is probably going to rely heavily on VR, AR and MR technology. Products will be optimized in a fully-immersive environment during the virtual prototype stage, making the product development process faster than it has ever been before.
The fabrication of the end products will also undergo major upheaval, using AR to make complex assembly tasks easier for operators and machinists. Heads-up displays showing layouts or instructions can be used to guide the engineer, or MR technology can use a combination of real-world data and virtual images to control and correct robotic assembly.