EUREKA MAY 2001 COVER STORY

Virtual worlds in the palm of the hand

The next generation of CAD work stations offer full interactive 3D designing yet fit in the pocket. Tom Shelley reports

Cap: Fully interactive virtual reality CAD can now be squeezed into a pocket PC.

Par: New software allows 3D file graphic sizes to be enormously compressed, allowing them to be transmitted over mobile phone connections and run on modestly powered platforms without putting excessive strains on hardware.

The software is mainly being developed for interactive pocket maintenance manuals, but is already proving of interest to groups of users ranging from top designers to car salesmen, estate agents and golfers.

The breakthrough comes from a company of academics and programmers originally set up by three Russians, George and Stephan Pachikov and Gary Kasparov of chess fame. The first company, Paragraph, pioneered the development of hand writing recognition and digital ink technologies, which were licensed by Apple for the Newton, and are now used in many palmtops.

Paragraph was also a pioneer of 3D graphics tools for the Internet, and was purchased in 1997 by SGI, who decided to concentrate on hardware the following year, allowing the managers to buy their business back again which they renamed, ParallelGraphics.

Today, ParallelGraphics is headquartered in Dublin, under the direction of Connell Gallagher, an entrepreneur of considerable experience who advised the managers on their buy back. Development now takes place in both Dublin and Moscow.

Being particularly expert in VRML, the programmers are able to compress 3D VRML models in what they call an Internet Model Optimiser (IMO) and add interactions and animations using an Internet Scene Assembler.

The result is an interactive, virtual reality CAD viewer which they have chosen to call Pocket Cortona, able to run on products such as Compaq's iPAQ pocket PC running Windows CE, with the future possibility of it running on mobile phones..

What sets it apart from the rest of 3D CAD is its versatility and the extraordinarily small file sizes. A 3D shaded graphic model of a refrigerator, with doors which can be opened and buttons triggered on screen occupies only 10K and a complete house, with a great deal of functionality and texture mapping, 408K. IMO imports DXF or VRML model files and can list all the component object elements. The user can then decide which must be read in at full resolution, and which may be reduced to, say, a coarser mesh with only 10% of the resolution of the original. Visual support is offered at every step of the creative process and optimisation parameters are dynamically displayed in the 3D window.

The original intention seems to have been to develop it as a web viewing tool, but now there are plenty of these, it has been taken a couple of stages further, to something suitable not only for pocket computers but also, possibly, for the next generation of mobile phones. The software will therefore run on any computer, phone or TV set top box powered by Intel ARM, MIPS or SH-3 processors.

One of the first applications is to produce interactive manuals for maintenance engineers.

Strange as it may seem to some, maintenance engineers do not want to have to go around with strapped-on personal computers and eyepiece viewers making them look like characters from the film, 'Universal Soldiers'. Much preferred is something which can be slipped out of a pocket, quickly interrogated and slipped back again, and costs only an acceptable amount..

MAN Roland Druckmaschinen, a leading manufacturer of printing presses is one of the first companies to test IMO. MAN's product training department found that it improved the development time for its Web based training by over 20%. "It has been a real killer application for us." said Michael Gaubatz-Christ, manager, training documentation, digital media and network solutions for MAN.

A 129K sized mockup of a Jaguar car with working doors and some controls is clearly aimed at car sales. ParallelGraphics is also partnering with a technology based company to develop applications we have been asked not to reveal for the golfing enthusiast. The company says its software "Does not work on palmtops or mobile phones, yet, but we are looking at developing our application for these devices."

The advantage for design engineers is that with the software running on devices which can be carried in the pocket, work with mobile phones, and which will soon probably form parts of mobile phones, it will be possible to do interactive product reviews anywhere in the world, including out at sea and on top of wind swept oil rigs.

The price of hardware is quite reasonable, even for resource starved engineers and design departments. The Compaq iPAQ costs around 500 in the UK, and suitable platforms made by other Far Eastern suppliers can be found for 200 to 300. The software is currently in Beta, and may be down loaded free from www.parallelgraphics.com

Interested parties should down load now, since the business plan includes licensing charges for finished versions.

Design Pointers

New software allows 3D CAD models to be viewed on a palm sized pocket PC.

File sizes are small enough to send over mobile phone wireless links with present day technology

Software runs under Windows CE version 3.0 or on conventional PCs or Macs

Designer's dream box, can it be real?

Speaking at Solid Modelling 2001, a leading designer outlined a vision of a designer's CAD workstation which could be close to reality.

Bob Buxton, of Buxton Wall McPeake, gave a paper in which he outlined the possible tools he thought CAD vendors could develop to provide designers with a more user-friendly and efficient way of using CAD.

His proposed CAD workstation opened out to reveal an A3 size flat screen and an A3 size drawing pad. Instead of laboriously selecting tools from a screen menu using mouse clicks and the usual hierarchy of folders, he suggested that there should be a tray of reprogrammable physical tools linked to the software, so that for example touching the ellipse pen on the screen produced an ellipse, touching with the airbrush pen filled a shape with colour and so on. He suggested that those who still felt the need for a keyboard for occasional use could have a simple keyboard overlay for part of the drawing pad.

He challenged the idea that the keyboard and mouse were the last word in computer interface for CAD users. Those present agreed that the technology to design by forming shapes in an immersive world with a gloved hand had been around for years. Debate then turned to whether practical developments were limited by Microsoft's Windows operating systems, until an IT consultant from NEL said that all the tools for more radical ways of working were already all there, plus even better ones in the next version.

Combined with the compressed VRML technology outlined above, the facility Bob proposed could also include interactive 3D and be made pocket sized. Since his company is heavily into high tech industrial and product design, we take it that he would be delighted to develop such a tool box and make it real, if any of our readers out there in hardware manufacture would care to make the necessary investment.

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