Product design enters a new reality

Immersive virtuality helps companies design better products faster and more economically

Joseph Knoop
21 November 2016

3 min read

Seeing a virtual product in 3D on a computer screen is good, but the small screen makes it easy to miss the fine details of complex products – details that could be expensive to fix later. The arrival of low-cost head-mounted displays is eliminating that challenge, allowing designers and engineers to experience their creations at life-size scale.

Development of 3D design software revolutionized product development. The ability to see those 3D models in immersive virtuality (iV) is about to revolutionize it again.

“VR allows you not just to look at the 3D models, but to experience them,” said David Nahon, director of Immersive Virtuality at 3DEXPERIENCE Lab at Dassault Systèmes (publisher of Compass). “That is a game-changing development. Looking at a model on a desktop is good, but the full-scale experience of the model gives you the capacity to asses a lot of elements you might not notice on the small screen, before you invest in any further expensive development.”

The world’s wealthiest corporations have used iV technology in Virtual Reality (VR) CAVEs for nearly two decades, but high cost and complexity limited its use primarily to expert users in design and engineering. Low-cost head mounted displays (HMDs), newly introduced in 2016, are making immersive experiences available to companies of all sizes, however, while expanding access to more users than could ever fit in a CAVE.

“Many manufacturing industries have interest in VR,” said Hervé Fontaine, vice president of B2B Virtual Reality for HMD maker HTC Vive. “With the product lines of Vive designed specifically for enterprises, anyone who is using 3D software can suddenly view their model in VR.

"Rather than building a physical prototype to look for mistakes, they will be able to spot errors in VR at a much earlier point in development than they have been able to do on a computer screen, which will save them lots of time and money.”


Making a design mistake in an airplane or automobile can cost millions, so it’s no surprise that aerospace and automotive manufacturers are experienced leaders in applying iV to product development.

As the world’s third-largest aircraft manufacturer for the commercial, defense and security, and executive jet markets, Brazil-based Embraer has gone through several generations of iV technology, including a recent move from virtual reality (VR) to mixed reality (MR).

Unlike its previous CAVE environment for VR, Embraer’s new MR environment allows users to simultaneously see the room they’re in, their own bodies and their models. This awareness delivers a freedom of movement and perspective that is revolutionizing how the company validates and refines its designs for new aircraft.

“We have accelerated product development through immersive design review in a natural space that comprises digital components and systems, as well as physical models of interior components,” said Paulo Pires, managing director at Embraer Engineering & Technology Center in Florida. “Participants are now able to interact with virtual models and about a dozen other team members, regardless of physical location. A variety of design configurations may be inspected and annotated by all participants simultaneously.”

For a company with major operations in both North and South America, removing VR from the CAVE has special benefits. Designers no longer need to travel between the two continents to collaborate, leaving more time to focus on design. The ability for many people to see the same information simultaneously also helps teammates to understand and resolve issues more quickly.

A good example of the value of immersive design and simulation, Pires said, was Embraer’s testing of a concept for the Lineage Executive Jet, which has emergency doors designed to look like windows. “Although the aircraft has not yet been produced, it has drawn broad market interest, including specific customer requests,” Pires said. “The engineering validation of the concept using VR has allowed the company to market a virtual product.”


While Embraer brings MR product design to everyday aerospace travel, NASA is using Microsoft’s MR Hololens to create holographic materials for its astronauts.

ProtoSpace, one of two MR trials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), allows engineers to more fully visualize the design of future spacecraft. Ordinarily, the engineering process takes place with 3D models on a standard 2D computer screen. Using ProtoSpace, however, NASA’s engineers can walk around their latest Mars Rover (due to launch in 2020) in MR.

“This has already enabled our engineers to discover issues with these designs that may have otherwise caused a costly delay during spacecraft assembly,” said Jeff Norris, Mission Operations Innovation lead at NASA’s JPL. “It’s an amazing experience, discussing a spacecraft with another engineer that feels like it’s in the room with you, but won’t actually be built for several more years.”

Rebecca Gibson contributed to this article.

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