Prototyping Toolbox Series: Virtual Reality

Treetown Tech engineers use virtual reality to quickly iterate on designs before the first pieces of material are cut on a physical prototype.

Welcome to the first installment of our Prototyping Toolbox Series! Over the next few months, we’ll be providing some fascinating insight into our engineers’ regular gadgets and go-tos.

Our first exciting topic is virtual reality (VR). VR is best known for its gaming and entertainment functions — you may even remember some early visualizations of VR in Star Trek’s ‘holodeck’ technology. But VR has valuable uses in prototype engineering as well, and we’re here to tell you all about them.

What is VR?

Virtual reality is a fully immersive experience of a simulated environment. A user perceives this computer-generated reality through a headset or helmet and can even interact and manipulate their environment with special gloves or hand controllers.

VR began with 3D projections more than 30 years ago (now part of augmented reality.) There were no headsets at the time, but it became instrumental to early prototyping and was a popular tool for building walk-throughs. However, those million-dollar installations were cost prohibitive.

Once big companies entered the scene with a focus on gaming, VR quickly developed greater capabilities at a much lower price point. Today, you can find different software designed for a variety of headpieces and apps. For instance, visual artists use VR for sculpting in “clay” or drawing in a 3D space.

VR at Treetown Tech

Today our engineers start with computer-aided design (CAD) software — typically SolidWorks — to model a project in 3D. These files are then converted into a VR format so engineers, clients, and end users get the full immersive experience of the design functionality.

When our engineers work on vehicle prototypes, for example, they need to get a feel for the actual size of a vehicle or its sightlines—which is difficult on a monitor. In VR, they sit down in a real driver’s chair and line up the VR model from their seat. From there, they can test things out. How comfortable is it to turn the steering wheel? Can they reach the door handle? Engage the window?

VR lets us interact with products in ways that aren’t possible with physical prototypes. With VR, we can actually get inside a design and manipulate components. Using hand controllers, engineers can grab any piece of a model and see—or rather, feel—how it works. They shift perspective and pieces, interact with the components, even “explode” the design and put it back together one piece at a time. If it doesn’t work, then it’s easy to go back to the drawing board and reiterate the design based on VR feedback.

Typically, this is done with a physical prototype – but those can have large costs associated and increasingly long lead-times. By iterating quickly in a virtual environment, our team can save iterations on physical prototypes; this approach saves in both time and money even before a client commits to a first prototype.

Geek-out factor vs. business value

For the nerds among us, it’s no surprise that there’s a huge geek-out factor with a futuristic tool like VR. And while our engineers do enjoy themselves in the VR space, they always have our customers in mind. VR allows for faster client feedback than the traditional method of building an entire physical prototype. At Treetown Tech, a real end-user can sit down, put on the headset, and give instant feedback based on what it’s like to interact with the VR model. 

What’s next

Always thought that VR is all about gaming? Think again. With its capability for rapid iteration, it’s an excellent tool for prototype engineers.

While it’s back to the holodeck for us, stay tuned for the second installment in our Prototyping Toolbox Series to see what we’ll get our hands on next.