Pervasive Virtual Reality, Driven by Gamers, Could Bring Exciting Opportunities for Professionals
Is the next generation of designers honing its skills on Minecraft?
If there were a record for the longest wait for a technology to take off (longest gestation period for a new technology), then virtual reality must surely be a top candidate for the honor. As long ago as 1990, the movie Total Recall gave mainstream audiences a dystopian view of the way life could be. The intervening three decades have cemented the image of the headset-wearing gamer in our minds – totally immersed in the experience yet oblivious to all around. And still it has failed to gain a large-scale following. Until now, perhaps.
With equipment sales currently rising at about 14% per annum according to research by IDC, all the big consumer technology brands are planning major new product launches in the coming months. Growth should accelerate to more than 30% in the next five years.
Of course, it’s all about computing performance, power and cost: the computing to deliver lifelike experiences at lifelike speed, within a lightweight, wearable form factor, and at an affordable price. Finally, all three criteria appear to be satisfied and the marketers feel that gamers are now ready to take their passion to the next level.
The gaming market should drive economies-of-scale that will make the technology affordable for commercial-use cases. Previously in this column, I’ve discussed how augmented reality can assist manufacturing and help enhance productivity and quality, as well as reducing training overhead. Now, the same immersive qualities that make such a great case for gamers is creating exciting opportunities for VR as a design aid.
Manufacturing companies have had 3-D modeling tools for some time now and have used them to drastically shorten the time to market as well as reduce development costs. Although the software renders 3-D images, however, users have been forced to view these images on a two-dimensional screen. It has remained for the designers’ minds to connect those images with the finished article and visualize interactions with other parts in the system and with the world around. Assisted by VR, designers can build digital twins of their creations and see them come to life, treating them almost as physical objects. More than ever, designers can inhabit a simulation. It’s important to note here another property of the latest VR solutions from leading vendors, which mixes elements of the real world into the experience to help users exist in their virtual worlds for longer periods; it not only fuels gamers’ addiction but also helps designers become more productive.
This could save enormous cost and time in the nuclear industry, for example, and effectively allow access to competitively priced low-emission energy. As we all know, the nuclear industry is highly regulated. These regulations include compulsory validation of any new power station design, which can demand multiple expensive iterations. If design changes are found to be necessary, the validation must be repeated. Assisted by VR, designers can inhabit the installation virtually, walk around, and simulate every detail of running the power station. They can even quickly change and optimize the positions of specific buttons on the control panels, and the locations of important amenities, and practice emergency or safety procedures. Thus, every aspect can be properly addressed before committing to the physical validation, including any non-safety-related issues that may in the past have been noticed but deemed too expensive or time-consuming – and unnecessary – to fix.
We can also see this bringing great value to automotive design and maintenance; in particular for electric vehicles. Siemens and Porsche have described how they developed augmented reality software that uses design data from the carmaker’s Taycan EV project to assist maintenance at service centers anywhere in the world. There’s an important safety angle here for technicians working with today’s most powerful EVs. The AR software lets them see the complete power system including charging, battery, and electrical connections within the vehicle. It also shows the high-current paths and displays how the energy is flowing, allowing them to see exactly where they need to take extra care. The electrical energy onboard the vehicle, at a potential of several hundred volts, demands respect and understanding, so it’s good to see that all of us involved with this technology – from manufacturers of power semiconductors and high-performance PCB materials to end-product manufacturers and their partners – are making the changes needed to ensure safety and reliability at operating voltages now approaching 1kV.
The widespread availability of immersive VR at consumer prices will also increase the value of remote collaborative working. Many of us are working from home much more these days, although current tools can be somewhat restrictive. With VR in the home, designers can meet in a space to interact with objects, collaborate, and visualize the effects of their design changes quickly.
It’s been a long time coming, but the age of pervasive AR/VR could finally be about to dawn. The gaming market will continue to be a powerful force driving the performance gains and economies-of-scale needed for the technology to become ubiquitous and affordable for mass adoption. On the other hand, many of those gamers could be the same people stepping into virtual design studios and collaborative spaces to do their day jobs. They will be completely at home in either environment.