Virtually real

In some areas, the traditional hand-crafted model is being edged out of the design process by on-screen visualisations. John Stones quizzes experts in three different fields on the potential of digital prototyping

Reality is changing before our eyes. What was once the realm of science fantasy is now viewed with nonchalant boredom. Computer-aided design has become a fixture and people are slowly getting their heads around the possibilities of rapid prototyping or 3D printing. But what of the digital prototype, inhabiting a virtual space beyond the mere render or digital drawing?

Buying a kitchen at Ikea, a trainer from Nike or a hatchback from Fiat, you now have the ability to twirl through various visualisations online. Mydeco.com even allows you to try out furniture from different manufacturers in a virtual 3D space of your own design, or just create fantasy interiors. It’s ‘the final battle of democratic design’ that will ‘kill the last trace of elitism’, according to Philippe Starck, who is on the board of Mydeco.

The same software enabling these ‘consumer’ digital prototypes also powers the considerably more sophisticated virtual or digital prototypes that are rapidly taking hold in the processes of professional design. Here are the contrasting views of a designer, a software manufacturer and a design educator on their impact

THE SOFTWARE MANUFACTURER

Autodesk is one of the software manufacturers that is heavily promoting digital prototyping, but Richard Blatcher, head of manufacturing marketing Northern Europe, is careful not to overstate the case. ‘We are not saying you never need physical models – you have to be able to feel and look at a model. What we are saying is that you can reduce the number of physical models you make, and allow designers to be more innovative and see at an earlier stage what is viable,’ he says.

While he accepts the origins of digital prototyping are in engineering and automotive design, Blatcher suggests it is increasingly commonplace in fields as diverse as film, gaming, architecture and even grapics and advertising.

A digital prototype can also be transferred from one design discipline to another and even to advertising, he points out. Saving costs and bypassing the annoying imperfect reality, it is now possible to ‘photograph’ the virtual object, using digital data. The packaging designer can simply pass a file to the designer at the advertising agency or at a specialist post-production house, such as Saddington & Baines, for a digital photoshoot, where not only the capture, but the object itself is digital. ‘They can translate the feel and emotion of a scene by looking at the digital information from a photographer’s point of view,’ he says. and potential.

THE EDUCATOR

‘What has been happening is a conceptual shift,’ says Dale Harrow, professor of vehicle design and department head at the Royal College of Art. ‘There’s a move from having a static model in clay or glass fibre to creating a digital model. The days of them being clunky and crude are over – the packages are so subtle these days that the digital images can be very beautiful.’

He’s witnessing a generation of designers emerge for whom digital prototypes are the norm. ‘These can be dropped into another 3D environment such as Second Life, where they can be made to exist in a virtual world. We even see people designing digital products for that community,’ he says. Copyright issues can also require the design of virtual products – for instance, in video games when it is not possible to use actual cars.

And sometimes that virtual world comes back into the real world in surprising ways, Harrow points out, citing Nissan which ‘virtually’ launched two cars, the 370Z and GT-R in computer games well before they were seen publicly in the flesh.

While the majority of students want a traditional career, an increasing minority consider using their skills in film or other fields, as the digital skill sets converge. But digital prototypes are not yet totally accepted in industry. ‘What we are seeing is often that the physical model is required only for the older generation,’ says Harrow. ‘It’s often said that a board of directors would never sign something off without a physical model.’

THE LIGHTING DESIGNER

Digital prototyping may have obvious applications in product design, but when it comes to something less tangible, such as lighting design, its benefits are less clear. Mark Major, a director of lighting consultancy Speirs and Major Associates, is a digital modelling sceptic.

‘The results are very approximate, so it is something we largely use for ourselves,’ he says. ‘When we show the results to clients, it is always with a very clear caveat. I compare it to the architect’s white-card model, which no one expects to look like the final thing. We would also use Photoshop, words or sketches or commission high-quality renders.’

Speirs and Major uses a basic package (Relux), as Major believes the very sophisticated programmes available require too much time and resources. ‘They can be a waste of money as the incredible photorealistic detail depends on all other aspects being decided, something that doesn’t happen in the real world. If we said to architects halfway through the project that we needed to know the exact finish on the floor, the level of polish etc, they would look at us as though we were mad,’ he says.

Major also worries that the experience and imaginative ability of the designer will be sidelined, and lighting designs will be implemented that look great on screen but disappoint in reality. While his design team spend most of their time sitting in front of computer screens, he says ‘the time they spend with a physical model, shining light on it from different angles and so on, will teach them much more’.

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