Simulation: An extended field of view
Simulation involves highly skilled design and installation. Does this exclude all but very specialist AV engineers or is new technology opening up the market? Paul Milligan investigates.
The provision of simulation systems has historically provided some of the proAV industry’s most rewarding and visually impressive work. The client demands can be very precise as clients are often in industries (aviation, maritime etc) where the training (and progression of skills) of its staff has to be completed to the highest standard. Because of the importance of such systems, budgets aren’t as closely scrutinised as they are in other projects, because the client wants the best solution possible.
This, in turn, demands a high level of design and integration from the resulting consultant/integrator, which can deter non-specialist integrators from entering the market. Other issues affecting the simulation industry include the changes we’ve seen in the wider AV world i.e. the rise of LED over projection, the growth of specialist AV software, the growth (or lack of it) of CAVE systems. Also, are we seeing new industries (media, retail, energy etc) embrace simulation systems, or is it very much business as usual, with the traditional customer base coming from the military, flight training etc?
When we think of simulation systems it’s natural to think of projection, often it includes several units blended together to create an immersive, realistic environment. But in the face of the growth of high resolution LED panels, is projection still the best method (or only method?) of successfully achieving a simulation system? “Projection remains the best way to achieve a high-level simulation environment, though it certainly is not the only method. Projection, when combined with spherical displays, provides the proper eye relief when looking at terrain or other objects. A flat-panel-based display can achieve some of this, but it accentuates the 2D nature of the content unless it is being delivered in stereo,” says Dave Fluegeman, VP simulation, Barco.
Some simulation environments don’t require projection because they may be desktop-based, or connected to a real/simulated display says Chris Waldron, regional manager – UK, Netherlands and Nordic, for simulation provider Antycip Simulation. “But where we do require an extended OTW (out of the window - a pilot’s view requiring their extended view out of the cockpit), projection is the optimal requirement.” There is undoubtedly competition for projection in this market sector says Dermot Quinn, COO/CTO, Digital Projection, and its not just coming from LED walls, but from improving lower cost projectors too. “High-end DLP projection must therefore be highly differentiated and/or present the only practical solution to the challenges of an installation. Projection remains a good solution where the pixelated nature of an LED wall is not acceptable, where high frame rate is necessary, where motion artifacts and image quality are critical or where the architecture does not permit the weight or size of other imaging solutions.
Simulation often requires the viewer to be very close to the screen so the high-fill factor of DLP provides the necessary visual acuity.” Others, like Christoph Bode, from German immersive environment providers project:syntropy don’t see this issue as a straightforward choice anymore. “We see, especially in automotive, an increasing willingness to experiment with LED display technology.” But projection won’t be replaced overnight he adds; “It will take a long time to have options for (replacing) projectors. But we do need to be prepared that typical VR/sim environments like CAVE, Power Walls or even cylindrical displays could be replaced by LED one day.”
Simulation environments will more than likely include multiple projectors, which will need to be blended with a very high level of accuracy. Is there still the need for specialist blending software to do this job, or has each manufacturer’s own software now reached a level of sophistication to do the task sufficiently? “Some level of specialist software is required to implement a matrixed display of projectors, especially on curved and spherical displays,” says Fluegeman. Waldron agrees; “In most cases our projects require a dedicated calibration system to manage the geometry correction, edge blending and colour matching of the projection display system.” It can be an either/or situation sometimes says Quinn. “The question is often asked: do we use our own in-built blend and warp or do we recommend the use of server-based software. Often the answer is determined by the resource available within the image generator (IG).” In Quinn’s experience some customers are happy to playback pre-rendered content through a graphics card, which also carries out the blend and warp. “Where our customer is making intensive use of the graphics processing for real-time rendering, they may prefer to use low latency hardware bland and warp within the projector.”
CAVE (cave automatic virtual environment) environments have been around in the AV world for a while now. Is their use still on the rise or has it plateaued? “I would not say they are on the rise, but there are not fading away either. We still see CAVEs out there, especially in design centres and we see request for upgrades,” says Bode. What Bode has also seen is a number of growing requests for immersive rooms featuring curved walls (including the floors), such as the ELBE Dome at the Fraunhofer Institute in Magdeburg, Germany, which is “providing cutting-edge visualisation environments which are more sophisticated than CAVE systems.”
3D stereoscopic displays (such as CAVE) have always been a display of choice in architectural, R&D, and other visualisation-oriented simulators says Fluegeman. “But they haven’t penetrated the training market to the level that curved and spherical displays have, due to the added complications of achieving flicker-free images in stereo mode as well as keeping stereo glasses synched in real-time,” he added. Simulators for a very specific reason are on the rise says Quinn, with CAVE systems among them. Explaining the reasons why Quinn adds, “The simulation market is driven by aspects such as the massively lower costs of training a pilot in a sim versus flying in a real airplane.”
As workplaces evolve due to technology, is this having an effect on the world of simulation? Are the traditional sectors (military, flight training) we associate with simulation projects still form the bulk of clients or we seeing entrants from new business sectors purchase simulators? “We have seen new interests from energy, transport, retail, engineering and entertainment customers. Large and immersive data visualisation systems, interactive design review and virtual prototyping and digital twinning application requirements are growing and cut across all of our market interest areas,” says Waldron.
The outlook for new buyers of simulation systems is a positive one it seems, as backed by this from Fluegeman; “There is definitely growth in other segments where visual representation of data in 3D is used for analysis, planning, and preparation in advance of physical tasks. Some examples I have recently seen are models of water flow from rivers into reservoirs and distribution canals with forecasts of evaporation; and construction of deep-water drilling equipment in support of oil extraction previously thought unachievable.”
It is clear there is a high level of skill involved in designing, installing and maintaining a simulation system, so does this mean it is a ‘closed shop’ handled by only a few integrators/consultants per territory? Or has new software/hardware advancements opened it up to more installers? “Simulation remains a niche area and the delivery of complex and high fidelity simulation environments does require specialist skills,” says Waldron.
“There are many companies that have these skills as every large OEM will have expert simulation teams but they tend to be very specific in their application focus. The COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) software applications and hardware technical advances have opened up simulation opportunities to new customers. In almost every case the end users will need some specialist assistance in sourcing, installing and managing their simulation environments because even where a customer is a mature user they are likely to focus their internal expertise on their project requirements rather than being expert in all of the aspects of the visualisation, projection and display capabilities.”
Others agree, the market is becoming more open, but a specialist is still your best bet. “Advancements in auto alignment (for instance) do not make simulation applications more accessible for less experienced companies, it rather makes the job of integrating a visual within a sim quicker for already experienced companies,” says Iain Ambler, head of business development UK for Norxe, a Norwegian company that designs, manufactures & markets projectors for demanding applications. The final word to goes Dave Fluegeman from Barco; “Simulation is, and I believe always will be, a very specialised skill. Setting up a complete simulated environment requires a collection of several technical skills, especially if it is a real-time training environment. The complete integration of computer and graphics science, with optics, physics, and electrical and mechanical engineering is still simply amazing to me and what keeps me waking up every day eager to get to work!”