Virtual Reality, VR, has long been used as an immersive design-review tool. VR toolmakers like NVIDIA and MiddleVR view VR as a collaborative environment for design. The ability to design in VR could change product development yet we have far to go.
NVIDIA announced the early access program for the NVIDIA Holodeck product at the GTC Europe in Munich, Germany last October. As a collaborative VR environment, it is visually compelling and the live presentations during the GTC events in Munich and later in Tokyo were impressive.
There is no question that NVIDIA's Holodeck has created a beautiful, powerful VR environment for examining complex designs and collaborating with colleagues. However, it fundamentally remains a design-review tool and in that way is hardly different in any fundamental way from VR systems from 15 years ago. The issue is not the beauty or the complexity of the designs brought into the Holodeck. The issue is not the user interfaces (based on proven HMD VR wand technology). The issue is not even the limited number of collaborators (3).
A One-way Street is still just Design Review
Fundamentally, the NVIDIA Holodeck, like most collaborative VR environments today as well as from 10 years ago, is a one-way street. Design data from the CAD design files is prepared, transferred to an intermediate program - in this case, either 3dsmax or Maya - prepared to look "beautiful", and then imported into the Holodeck. That is a lot of overhead to get data into a VR environment, albeit not unusual in the industry. The limitation should be clear to every designer at this point. A designer who wants to work collaboratively on a design with colleagues in a VR environment would like to design in that environment. And designing in the NVIDIA Holodeck is technically impossible as the flow of information is strictly into the VR environment. There is no path to work on the actual design data from which the virtual world has been created.
Let's be clear. There is not any reason for this limit. There are not technical limits inherent in virtual reality which prevent NVIDIA or any other vendor from creating a bi-directional design environment. This fact, along with NVIDIA's releasing of a set of SDKs for the Holodeck leads one to believe that creative companies will some day fill this design tool gap. But in spite of the razzle-dazzle of the demo, we need to be clear that the NVIDIA Holodeck and VR tools like it are still functionally design-review environments and not truly collaborative design environments.
MiddleVR is Closer to a VR design Environment
The collaborative design (review) environment from MiddleVR and their product Improov, is a step closer to an immersive design environment. One advantage Improov offers over the NVIDIA Holodeck is the ability to read native CAD design files from products like CATIA, Siemens NX, and SolidWorks. While their platform does not deliver bi-directional interaction with the CAD design tool, the ability to read design data directly simplifies the interface between the real design environment and the virtual reality environment.
To be fair to NVIDIA and MiddleVR, the onus is on the CAD companies. If we are to have immersive, VR-based design tools, then these tools need to come from the design tool companies themselves. A truly immersive design tool needs to come from Dassault Systems, Siemens, SolidWorks, etc. At PW, our expectation is that these CAD vendors are too old-fashion, too traditional to imagine the potential productivity and competitive gains that their customers could glean from a well-done virtual reality design environment. For this reason, our expectations for future developments in the area are low.
The PW Perspective
The collaborative environment of the NVIDIA Holodeck is impressive even if it is limited to design reviews, if it imposes significant overhead, and if it limits participation to three colleagues. The ability to extend the environment via SDKs and the potential of NVIDIA's development team give us reason to hope for the future of the Holodeck. The nimble nature of developers like MiddleVR and the fact that they are already a step closer to providing an collaborative, virtual design environment causes us to wonder which path will deliver a VR design environment first.