Virtual reality could soon be a practical tool for engineers with the availability of inexpensive VR equipment like Oculus Rift and free open-source design software, according to a researcher at the University of New South Wales.
“I can eventually see the engineer sitting at his design board with a pair of goggles beside him,” UNSW senior lecturer John Page told Computerworld Australia.
Page and other researchers from the UNSW School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering have been developing simulations with the Oculus Rift headset for the last nine months.
The researchers had been looking engineering applications of virtual reality for the past five years, but for a long time it had been expensive and time-consuming to design and experience virtual worlds, Page said.
By comparison, Oculus Rift is cheap and easy to use, he said.
“The visuals are nowhere near as good as the original goggles we used, but we’re talking about a difference in price that’s out of this world,” Page said.
Using open-source programs Blender and Make Human, which cost nothing to use, the researchers can create virtual worlds and people much faster and more cheaply than had been possible before, he added.
The software does not use coding and is easy enough for an engineer to learn without having to do extensive training in programming or visual design, he said. “It’s become very user friendly.”
Travelling through space and time
Virtual reality is an immersive technology that could have great educational value for engineers, Page said. “Engineers work best when they’ve been exposed to something.”
VR can teach engineers about environments that are not frequently experienced, he said. For example, UNSW has developed a simulation of a space station that demonstrates the physical effects of zero gravity, he said.
“If you want an engineer to work well in space, it would be good to take them to space. You obviously can’t do that. You can take them into a flotation chain, but it costs a fortune.”
A tool like Oculus Rift can bring the stars to the engineer without great cost, he said.
The researchers are also developing simulations of planets and asteroid mining, he said.
“Nothing’s really known about [asteroids], and so as knowledge comes in from the probes, you could feed that directly into a VR, and it may be that that will be a better way to understand it than a string of math.”
Another potential application for Oculus Rift could be to simulate factory processes with the goal of improving efficiency, said Page.
“You could actually take the [factory] operative and put them in the environment and find out how they behave in the environment.”
Page added that VR could additional be used for a virtual museum or library of engineering artefacts, he said. For example, a car designer could use goggles to quickly inspect a variety of cars from different eras, walk around them and look inside, he said.
The state of VR
Page said UNSW will receive the new version of Oculus Rift this month and he expects that to improve several of the product’s weaknesses.
One important new feature is motion recognition of bending forward, a movement that is natural for inspecting objects in a virtual world, he said.
Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus is unlikely to affect the UNSW research, said Page.
“I think a lot of people were terribly upset because they saw it as joining the dark side. Personally, it’s had no effect on me at all.”
Page said he’s looked at information on Sony’s rival virtual reality headset, but has not tested it himself. However, he said that the Sony product appears to be targeted at gaming only.
“It’s got to be on a PC for it to be of any use to us.”