Virtual reality has long been at the forefront of overhyped technologies. Sure, it's a cool party trick to play a video game in VR, but no one can actually utilize the technology in their daily life... right?
Virtual reality, or VR, along with augmented reality, AR, and mixed reality, MR, are growing more prominent in their use within a variety of industries. From video games to art, and even to engineering. More mainstream VR devices and platforms are helping normalize the technology, like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation. However, it's important to understand that uses these alternate reality spaces don't just stop at the functions of that specific hardware or software.
VR has a growing presence in the engineering community. Particularly in the automotive design space, VR can be utilized to mold and sculpt models of automobiles or even interact with a final designed car to make sure the ergonomics and feel are as desired. To understand AR, VR & MR technology applications within engineering, first, we need to take a look at their capabilities.
What are VR, AR, and MR?
Virtual reality is a fully immersive technology. You dawn your goggles and are in a completely computer-focused and computer-generated landscape. Augmented reality takes one step back and mixes in real-life elements. Mixed reality makes a connection between the digital space in VR or AR into the real world. For example, MR would allow you to look our through AR goggles and change a virtual dial hovering in front of you that would then change the lighting in the room. VR is all virtual, AR is virtual and physical, and MR connects the virtual and the physical.
Now that we understand the basics of these technologies and how they apply to the world around us, both digital and physical, we can begin drawing connections to how they might affect the life and work of engineers.
Engineering applications for VR
Designing in terms of engineering used to be a fairly 2D process. Designs were limited to what you could accurately represent and depict on paper by hand. With CAD, the ability of engineers to design more complex things has become prominent. With 3D printing, the design to prototype phase has also been shortened. However, additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, isn't a quick process in terms of the design process. Additive manufacturing assemblies of parts or even full designs can be complex and time consuming for engineers. It would be far easier to make a few clicks in CAD, put on a headset, and view your design in front of you.
That's exactly what VR offers engineers and designers.
Computer-Aided Design software today can help engineers instantly visualize a component, assembly, or design in a real-life-like seeming space. While the incredible rendering technology of modern CAD solutions helps, being able to interact with an object pseudo-physically is the next step (before additive manufacturing a prototype, of course). VR ultimately can help reduce any probability that the design moves further along in the design process than it should. i.e., it offers quick, simple, and easy gut check design validation.
Most major CAD software providers already offer VR connections in their tools. Rendering programs like Autodesk 3DS Max allow your designs to be viewed in VR with a few clicks.
How VR & AR can improve design safety and ease assembly
Companies like General Motors are utilizing augmented reality to improve the design of safety-oriented parts on their vehicles. Alongside simulation-based CAD tools like generative design, augmented reality allows GM engineers to render crash scenes or impact loads on their parts, giving them insight into where they might need to beef up their design or perhaps if they need to relocate essential automobile components.
On the assembly front, several manufacturers like Boeing are training their manufacturing staff utilizing AR and VR training environments. These environments allow the engineers to toggle and manipulate often large and cumbersome parts with ease, of course, all in a digital – but real feeling – space.
On the quality assurance front, augmented reality allows Q/A supervisors to wear AR rigs to overlay an image of complete assemblies or parts onto the real-life part in front of them. This is a quick and effective way to reference back to the original design files and quickly check tolerances.
VR's potential to shape the future of engineering
At the end of the day, virtual reality in the engineering design and validation space is still a new technology that is waiting on mainstream engineering adoption. While big companies are implementing the technologies where they can, we still need time and use-cases to see where AR and VR fit into the most practical of uses in the modern design engineer's workflow.
I will make one closing call out to the use of VR for mechanical engineers. Imagine how easy it would be to demonstrate what you do at work when a friend or family member asks when you have a VR headset at your fingertips. Just have them pop on the headset and let them interact with your model or design. Rather than making them stare at a boring CAD model, showing off your design in VR takes your "coolness" to the next level.
For most mechanical engineers, we might design something like a part for an HVAC system or a component for a tractor, neither of which are inherently "cool" things. However, if you put those designs in VR, boom, engineering now becomes one of the coolest professions out there. For right now, utilizing VR as a STEM and engineering motivation tool might be another fantastic use.
At the end of the day, engineering and the design process is becoming increasingly based on simulation, cutting edge tools, and cutting-edge visualization capabilities. Designing in 2020 looks a lot different than it did in 2010. Designing in 2010 looked a lot different than designing in 2000... and so on.