Virtual reality bites

The use of computer simulations at the product development stage provides designers with a valuable and flexible tool. Emily Pacey looks at the benefits of creating digital models to visualise designs

Having a physical prototype of a product is not always possible or even desirable. For some important reasons, computer simulations, also known as digital and virtual prototypes, have never been more popular, useful and sophisticated.

’We make a lot of simulations, using them instead of or in combination with physical models,’ says Matt Round, creative director of Tangerine. ’A physical model may describe one part of an idea, but aspects such as the user interface can be better described with computer animations.’ He names complex electronic devices such as a tablet as a good product to model digitally ’because it may contain a particular mechanism that is complex to prototype on a one-off basis, and you will also want to show how the product moves and is used’.

Echo Brand Design is working on a big-budget personal care product for an unnamed client. Managing director Nick Dormon says,’The other day, we were on a teleconference call to the US to talk about the product. Teleconferencing is becoming more and more popular, but you cannot have physical models all over the world. The ideal answer is to e-mail a movie of the product to your long-distance colleagues.’

Similarly, Round describes how Tangerine created a physical mock-up of a British Airways cabin when creating the Club World Sleeper Seat. He says, ’The trouble is that you obviously have to get people to that place and you are not always able to. In that instance, we make a fly-through of the interior, which is transportable.’

Consultancies use a blend of programmes including Alias, Pro/Engineer, Rhino, Final Cut Pro, Director and Inventor to create digital models to visualise and animate their designs. Besides the polished virtual prototype, renders represent the conclusion of one stage and the start of the next step in the development of the product.

’Virtual prototyping is a tool just like a pencil, and it is really useful,’ says Stuart English, design school director for design learning innovation at Northumbria University. He is working on an eco-vehicle project with automobile manufacturer Nissan and electric scooter manufacturer Electscoot, and is also collaborating with other departments to create a working computer model of Newcastle-upon-Tyne that will help them to discover how electric vehicles could work within the city’s road and power infrastructure.

English believes that this is where virtual prototyping comes into its own. ’It is very useful for understanding how something is going to be used. We are right at the start of this low-carbon vehicle revolution, so it is great to build a virtual model that will show us its implications and impact.’

Virtual prototyping is a tool just like a pencil… It is useful for understanding how something is going to be used

Stuart English, Northumbria University

Consultancies frequently create their virtual models in-house, but occasionally they outsource to specialist 3D post-production houses. This often happens when brands are looking to market products prior to manufacture – an increasingly common strategy. US-based Speedshape, which has its roots in the Detroit automobile industry, last year completed a virtual model of the new Lexus CT 200h for use in a high-end interactive marketing movie. Now with an office in the UK, the company is finding that the European market is relatively slow to pick up CGI animation.

’The American market has taken off but European brands tend to be more traditional,’ says Speedshape’s Danny Morris. But regardless of geography, unless virtual prototyping develops to the extent that it can offer a physical experience, creating an actual object is likely to remain the preferred tool in the development of most products.

’In future, the tools are going to get more and more sophisticated and linked across different platforms, but computers will never replace the quality of thinking that comes from humans,’ says Round.

Dormon goes further, saying, ’There is no substitute for proper models that you can put in your hands, which can give you a sense of scale, which images do not. You simply want to see how it feels.’

Nevertheless, all agree that its speed and efficiency guarantee that virtual modelling will continue to grow, as lead times for consumer product development contract in the face of increasingly fierce competition.

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