I have a confession to make. I hate CAD (computer aided drafting.) Using computers to make drawings and renderings doesn't impress me much. The drawings have no elegance, no art. And for all the hoopla over BIM (building information modeling), it's not that much better for visualization. So when I hear about some great new modeling or rendering program, my kneejerk reaction is an eyeroll. Even when I read about zSpace, the system that lets you design with holograms. Holograms sound so sci-fi fantastical that it's hard not to write it off as a concept waiting for funding.
Last week in a lab at Olin College, I had the chance to try out zSpace for myself. I have seen the future and I want it. zSpace is a display and app development system. The system is made up of a 24 inch screen, polarized glasses, a laser like stylus, and software. At first glance, the tablet didn't look that different from any other tablet, just larger and bulkier. The minimum system requirements are not lightweight and include 4 GB (8 GB are recommended) of system memory and graphics cards with at least 1 GB of memory. The polarized glasses were light and flexible enough to slide on over my glasses.
Initially, the demo renderings were just fuzzy, flat images on the screen. When the system was turned on, however, the holographic effect was immediate and the figures really did appear solid. The three button stylus was simple and intuitive to use since it acts like a laser pointer.
The first demo renderings included a robotic arm, lungs, a watch, and a house. It was easy to forget the images were not physical objects and I reached out to grab or turn things with my hand more than a few times. Using the stylus, I took apart the robotic arm and lungs and brought them closer to my face before Scott Harris, a consultant to the zSpace project, reminded me I could just turn my head to see around the objects. This is where the real innovation lies. The glasses and stylus interact with the screen through infrared tracking points. The tracking points let the software continuously adjust the image relative to the position of the user's eyes. So in effect, you can see in, under, and around the image.
The objects were so real that it didn't bother me that I could move them through each other. That lapse in reality didn't register until Harris turned on a "Physics" feature, which turned on material properties of the objects. In a demo of a widget, I had to maneuver a mechanical piece into and out of its housing. The design value of being able to see and "feel" the spaces and their limits are obvious. A game simulation was the best part of the demo and also the easiest packaged application to imagine. Looking through tunnels and peering down cliff sides, I almost felt vertigo.
Another super cool feature is the camera path. Using the stylus, I laid out points over, under, around, and through the objects then grabbed a camera tool. The camera followed the path of points and the views were shown on a screen within the screen. The effect would be really useful in an architectural model. Harris, who is also a visiting professor at Olin, has used the feature in a class assignment where a flight path was simulated through a model of the campus.
Besides video games, industrial design, and medical imaging, the system would be useful in any application where visualizing is key. In a pilot program, Crate and Barrel is using the system to display scenes from their catalog. It's something IKEA may want to look into also, since the company is ramping up computer rendered scenes in their own catalogs.
The quality of the holograms depends heavily on the detail of the renderings. A few of the less refined images didn't hold my attention because there wasn't much to look at. And as easy as the stylus was to use, my hands were itching for a gesture based interface to rotate and zoom, maybe a Kinect based glove. The architectural model wasn't available for my demo, but I am curious to see how effective the display is in larger scale renderings.
Will these displays become industry standards? I'm not sure, but I would take holograms over digital line drawings any day.
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Top image: zSpace