Not So Sci-Fi

Virtual reality (VR) may seem to some the stuff of sci-fi movies. But to others VR is expected to become the key enabler to better, faster, and cheaper product design. IW talked to Jim Angelillo, an expert on VR and vice president of strategic relations at Fakespace Systems Inc. in Kitchener, Ont., to get a perspective on how small to midsized companies can benefit from the use of VR-based tools, as well as when these high-tech aids will become accessible and affordable on the desktop. IW: In what areas of product design do you think VR could be most beneficial to smaller companies? Angelillo: Right now, marketing is one area that really could benefit. Being able to show their customers their actual product using VR tells a much better story. They could show different concepts in the form of virtual models to find out in which direction the client wants them to proceed or they could use it to show their product next to a competitor's product on the same screen. Companies can also use VR to maximize their efficiency in training; they can train personnel using a virtual assembly of a system prior to actually putting a person on the line. IW: Describe a typical desktop VR system an engineer might use. Angelillo: At the desktop level, there would be some sort of inexpensive, lightweight visualization eye wear that is tracked so you get the correct 3-D perspective. Engineers would have some way of manipulating data with a pair of articulated gloves or something other than a mouse and a keyboard that would enable them to work with the data in a more natural manner, much like they would in the real world. IW: The ability to collaborate on designs is becoming increasingly important. How can VR facilitate a company's ability to collaborate? Angelillo: The collaboration part is important because companies have plants and facilities all over the world and [engineers] are not always going to be able to travel there to get answers right away. Using a VR system, they can have all their design people right there in the room, evaluate a model or assembly, make a change, then approve or disapprove -- all in the course of a day instead of weeks. So it's really a huge savings in both physical prototype costs and the actual overhead cost of the design personnel. And if you can do it collaboratively over a net-work because you have people in various locations, those savings are enhanced. IW: What would it cost a company to implement such a system? Angelillo: For either local collaboration or networked collaboration, VR is quite affordable right now. You can get a smaller VR-based collaborative system for $60,000 or less and have five or six people in the same room collaborating on a design or an engineered part. IW: What do you think will be the entry price point for VR in five years? Angelillo: In five years I would estimate that the low-end entry point for VR would come down from $50,000 to $15,000 to $20,000 on the desktop. IW: What do you think is going to be the catalyst behind smaller companies embracing this technology? Angelillo: I think OEMs will be the driving force . . . . The OEMs are eventually going to force the smaller Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers to get on board with this because they want to have duplicate tools at both sides.

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