The audio visual industry has been heavily involved in simulation and visualisation since its earliest days and has, over the years, become increasingly immersive. The objective has been to place participants in another environment and immerse them in a different situation, however rudimentary that may be. More recently, the ability to transport viewers into a simulated space has developed enormously, to the point that the levels of realism and interactive performance have opened exciting new opportunities for visualisation and simulation in a wide range of commercial applications.
The high quality of large projected and flat panel displays, combined with powerful computing engines have enabled virtual display solutions to be created to address new markets in which the production of a real system is inconceivable, unjustified or impossible. “Aerospace and defence are the core, traditional, sectors for simulation and visualisation systems, but we are experiencing a large upswing in other sectors,” says Frank Reynolds, European marketing manager, Antycip Simulation. “The simple example is that of a flight simulator. Despite its complexity and cost, is considerably cheaper than risking damage to a multi-million-dollar aircraft. Now, the reducing cost of simulated systems is extending their reach to wider training arenas, research, data modelling, architecture and project design and execution.”
Lucy Meredith, regional marketing manager, Panasonic Visual Solutions points out other applications: “Simulation and visualisation systems continue to grow as the evolution of augmented and virtual reality technology has brought the idea of digitally replicating real-life experiences even closer. These systems are ideal for training applications in which it is not possible or safe to learn on the job.”
Whilst only one person may be able to use a complex fully-immersive system at a time, others can observe, learn and familiarise themselves with the situation. Also, as Reynolds points out: “With a simulator you can rewind, repeat, pause, analyse, review, test alternatives, involve others and look at things from many different viewpoints. Things that cannot be done, or can’t be done simply, easily or cost effectively in real life.”
Low quality can be effective
Even low quality visualisation and simulation systems can be highly effective. Trainees can understand elements of the target environment using the same simulation software on a desk-based system with three LCD panels, or even using an iPad. The training won’t be as immersive, but it will add value through familiarisation with the final environment and procedures. It all helps. “Research shows simulation in a training environment means fast and accurate results can be obtained and trainees’ progression monitored, so it is possible to track and optimise the learning content and environment,” says Meredith.
Another sector in which simulation and visualisation tools are proving effective is retail demonstration. For example, the experience of a driving sports car can be realised as a marketing tool through high-tech simulation systems, without putting the real thing to the test.
Companies are increasingly looking to offer their customers more to stand out from the competition. “In order to differentiate their offerings marketers are seeking new and creative ways, often using technology to enhance their proposition to potential customers. To enable them to see, feel and experience a product and a virtual offering is one way of adding to that,” explains Richard Ward, Engage Works’ client services director. “It’s a powerful thing to take people into situations, to experience something they cannot otherwise experience. For example, many high-end apartments are sold off-plan and use virtual or augmented reality content. These technologies can allow users to enter a virtual apartment, inspect the finish of the surfaces and get a feel for the living space. They can even look at the views from an apartment, shot in 360° from a camera on a crane or drone.”
In all cases the justification for creating a simulated environment, whether inside a pair of virtual reality goggles or in a 3-dimensional, fully immersive CAVE, lies in its cost effectiveness compared with alternative solutions.
The tools to produce content are becoming more powerful, affordable and commonplace. We can thank the gaming industry for some of that. Not only have they driven down the cost of powerful computers and graphic cards, but content creation tools like Epic’s Unreal Engine, Unity 3D and Microsoft Visual Studio are suited to create visualised landscapes for more commercial applications on screens and in goggles.
Another aspect that endorses that justification is that much of the output is reusable across other processes. Architectural drawings using dedicated CAD software like Autocad Architecture can create images and objects that are essential to the design process but can be further virtualised into sales presentations as interactive fly-throughs and interior and exterior building perspectives for future dwellings.
Complex design operations are also embracing simulation and virtualisation. Product design departments are combining large scale, very high resolution videowalls into their facilities and extending the output to other areas to enable visualisation and collaboration by design, marketing and management teams. Nigel Best, business development director for simulation, Holovis, outlines a typical scenario in the automotive industry: “Large scale visualisations are used throughout the whole life cycle of car design, validating data against both the design intent and the production tooling geometry, which is created simultaneously. This speeds up the process by approximately 13 weeks per development cycle by allowing engineers to work collaboratively in the virtual space to make amendments in realtime and see the results, instead of having to wait for a cube model to be generated. It also saves cost, approximately £750k per development programme and has a higher degree of data integrity by automating the annotation process into the same solution, rather than having that data input manually.”
Holovis’ suite of development tools helps authors create training environments for immersive VR CAVEs and desktop learning and augmented reality content applications. Another set enables collaborative product design and links the tooling and production process, while for the amusement industry there is a 1:1 ride design tool that allows teams to explore the virtual world and ride the experiences, calculating demographics such as height and seat position, to check everyone will have the optimum experience.
Unsurprisingly, the younger generation are influencing market progression. They are more conversant with interactivity, acutely familiar with simulated environments through animation and gaming and highly expectant and ready to accept virtual imagery, easily making an intuitive jump to the real world – a point understood and readily seized upon by large corporations, including Microsoft, Google and Sony.
“Entertainment and in particular its experiential aspect has changed massively over the past five years,” says Yiannis Cabolis, director of technical innovation at Electrosonic. “The broadcast industry has been trying to get to grips with this and find ways to engage with the user, hence the inclusion of processors into Smart TVs. Entertainment no longer comes through a single device but through a multi-platform environment in many forms. Even live events have several aspects and personalisation to provide a unique experience matched to individuals is happening more regularly. Simulation and visualisation are an important part of this new regime. Augmented and mixed reality displays or holographic projections linked to personal profiles will enable operators of these services, whether a theme park ride, stadium-based event or product launch, to tailor individual experiences and lead people along a path of interest to them. Which may be entirely different to someone else travelling along their own dedicated path – even if it is at the same event at the same time.”
Creating the most believable environment to immerse a user is not limited to visual presentation. “Audio quality is hugely important. We don’t take it seriously enough, despite our ability to discern audio quality is more refined than video. Fortunately the price of high quality equipment is falling. Soundbars with Dolby Atmos are becoming affordable in commercial and even domestic installations.”
Good quality well-designed lighting schemes also add significantly to the overall effect. Adjustable LED lighting can transport people to any corner of the world by simulating the natural light of that location. Haptic and motion control systems can also add effects to further enhance the realism and provide a better simulation of a target environment.
AV technology is essential to simulation and virtualisation applications. With the human desire to continually experience new things, the market for simulation services is projected to take off rapidly over the next several years.