Design of products, buildings, clothing, etc., has historically been largely a two-dimensional affair. The life of a new product starts when it gets sketched on a piece of paper (or on a computer screen, using CAD or other design programs). The specs then get fleshed out, a prototype is created, and the rest is history—unless there's a design flaw, where something in the basic design or sketch was “off.” Then it's back to the drawing board.
While design is restricted to two dimensions, designers need to be able to jump into the third dimension, envisioning what their creation will look like in the real world. It's about more than just looks; a design has to take into account how something will interact with the world.
For some programs, though, a few of the most often-asked questions seem to lack adequate-enough answers:
- Will the designer’s creation fit and behave the way the designer wants?
- Is the design optimized for manufacturing?
- Is the product something that is feasible on an assembly line, or does its design veer from the standard systems that companies are counting on to quickly and cheaply reproduce the item?
These are questions that designers typically have to face every time they pick up their drafting pen, and it's the main reason why designers ask if a prototype can be built. The problem with prototypes is that they can take months to build, and often will see multiple iterations. Knowing how difficult the process is, designers are forced to be conservative with prototypes. It's only natural that designers will err on the side of caution, given the expense and hassle of changing designs, which means that some of the best ideas may never see the light of day.
One way to reduce the risk—and save a significant amount of time and money—is to incorporate augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) into the design process. Many aspects of the traditional design process, based on prototypes, can be covered by using AR and VR. It allows designers to gain insight on whether or not the object they designed is really sustainable.
Ford’s Foray into AR
At Ford, for example, designers have been using Microsoft HoloLens technology to view proposed virtual design elements. In the automotive industry, the traditional way to design a new vehicle is to build a carefully crafted clay model, complete with all features as they would physically be present on a new vehicle. The design is first put down on paper or computer screen, and the 3D model is built from that. Changing the model could take weeks, or even months.
Using the AR devices, designers can virtually add features to the basic clay model within minutes, saving time and money. For instance, the design of a vehicle's grille could require subtle changes to allow for better engine performance. However, the grille also needs to stay within the style guidelines for a specific model.
Using AR, designers can virtually change a grille on the spot, adding or removing features as needed. “It’s amazing we can combine the old and the new—clay models and holograms—in a way that both saves time and allows designers to experiment and iterate quickly to dream up even more stylish, clever vehicles,” says Jim Holland, Ford Vice President, vehicle component and systems engineering. “Microsoft HoloLens is a powerful tool for designers as we continue to reimagine vehicles and mobility experiences in fast-changing times.”
Augmenting Architectural Design
The same goes for architects, who work from 2D plans when they design buildings, structures, or neighborhoods. CAD programs can only go so far, and it's often difficult for architects to explain their vision to managers or customers based on a sketch or a computer screen. Here, too, architects will order a scale-model 3D version of their design to be built. But, a small-scale version of what is supposed to be a streamlined, modern structure can't do justice to an architect's real vision.
Gensler, a top design and architecture firm, used AR to design its Los Angeles offices. AR is an example of “mixed reality,” according to Alan Robles, Gensler’s firmwide creative media leader. It's “the next evolutionary step of our ability to communicate the design product,” says Robles. “One of the great things about being able to bring our design materials out of screen space and into real space is that we can interact with and evaluate our design product in context. That’s really powerful. It’s essentially like a time machine. It’s a point in time you can move forward or backward to understand a place the way it was, throughout its design.”
Impact on Business and Sales
Beyond helping simplify large-scale production and projects and making them more cost-effective, AR also has the potential to revolutionize business. A new ARKit from Apple hopes to open the AR market to users of all kinds, with apps for gaming, design, home improvement, and much more. Apps will likely eventually be developed to help small manufacturers make products that are personally designed for clients. Customers can provide their specifications for size, color, and additional features.
In addition, manufacturers can produce models and customized versions of their products. Team this with the growing trend of 3D printing, and more iterations can be made in less time and reduced cost. As a result, designers will be able to experiment more and find the best feature for a company’s products.
AR has the potential to disrupt retail sales, too. Stores like Gap and Adidas are using AR to show customers how they will look in outfits. For example, customers at an Adidas store or Gap can try on a pair of shoes or a whole outfit, and see themselves in a virtual dressing room. Moreover, a Chinese grocery chain created popup store locations using AR tech, and numerous other B&M retailers, including Lowe's, Ashley Home stores, and more have discovered the benefits of AR technology. Design of products, devices, spaces, and virtually anything else will never be the same again.
Moving forward, AR will allow engineers to virtually step into their designs and receive a more realistic and tangible experience of what their creations will be like in the real world. This technology will also let interior decorators build virtual scenarios that so clients walk around and experience for themselves the designed space that they have invested in.