Even Better Than the Real Thing

The visualisation and simulation markets are growing, but as Tim Kridel explains, so are the choices that integrators and their clients must navigate.

One percent of 3 billion barrels of oil – the amount that BP recently discovered in the Gulf of Mexico – is 30 million barrels. With oil going for about €48 per barrel, that’s €1.44 billion, enough to buy lots of state-of-the-art simulation and visualisation gear.

“Some of the oil and gas guys we work with, they say that if they can have 1 percent more from a well, that means the world,” says Anders Løkke, international marketing manager at projectiondesign, a Norwegian projector vendor. “They can buy any number of visualisation systems just for that 1 percent.”

And they are. They’re also not alone. Many vendors and integrators say that the visualisation and simulation markets are strong, with high interest and deployments across a wide of industries.

“Classic markets like the defence industry, research facilities, universities, automotive, shipbuilding and oil companies are all asking for more cost-effective and modular solutions due to the increasing innovation,” says Oliver Michel, at project:syntropy, a German integrator that specialises in simulation installations. “Emerging markets are, for example, medium-sized companies.”

Information Overload

The visualisation and simulation markets are growing partly because technological advances are increasing the bottom-line value that these systems bring to end users. Being able to see more details in an oil deposit is one example.

“We are seeing greater demand for high resolution, beyond HD,” says Jeff Brum, vice president of marketing and business development at Mechdyne, a U.S.-based integrator specialising in visualisation. “As computers become more capable and datasets get larger, users want to see more of the data at once. They want all the detail.”

Some clients have multiple sources, such as 3D graphics and satellite imagery, that they want their system to combine.

“They want all that data available simultaneously so they can move quickly between sources, co-locate data for comparison or analysis and make better decisions faster,” Brum says. “Highly sophisticated switching and multi-windowing systems that display to Quad HD or tiled projectors allow multiple windows to be open with significant amounts of data within each window.”

More sources and more information create a need – and market – for hardware and software that help users sort through it all and avoid overload.

“Customers want to interact with their data using methods beyond the mouse and keyboard,” Brum says. “Motion-tracking technologies, touch-sensitive screens, gesture recognition and other means of interaction are increasing. At this time, these technologies are only compatible with a limited number of software applications.”

Some customers – particularly large, multinational companies – also want the ability to share and collaborate. For integrators, that means networking skills are a plus when targeting the simulation and visualisation markets. For vendors, eventually that preference could mean extending their platforms to support a wider range of devices, including cell phones.

“The focus of our work will be the seamless integration of 3D virtual reality worlds into Internet standards and the development of augmented reality applications for smartphones,” says Ulrich Bockholt, who’s developing next-generation visualisation and simulation technologies at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research in Germany.

More for Less

Another market driver is previously state-of-the-art technologies that have come down to a price that more enterprises can afford.

“Stereoscopic 3D is rather common now and affordable,” says project:syntropy’s Michel. “It is one of our main development efforts to make stereoscopic projection environments more affordable.”

Price isn’t the only reason why 3D adoption has grown.

“We see that stereoscopic 3D technology is becoming more pervasive as both hardware and software evolve,” says Mechdyne’s Brum. “Most design, research and data exploration software now have a 'view in stereo 3D' menu option. Desktop workstations and graphics cards can now drive standard stereo displays easily.”

As technology advances, it’s enabling larger and higher resolution systems.

“Graphics clusters are becoming larger – we have done 96 channels – and 3D simulations of computer-generated models and environments are possible whereas they weren't practical even five to 10 years ago,” Brum says. “For example, we have customers creating amazing 3D simulations of stellar phenomenon that were only dreamt of a few years ago.”

In the process, pixel count is becoming less of a key metric.

“The image generators today have come so far that pixel count really isn’t the limiting factor anymore,” says projectiondesign’s Løkke. “You can render as many pixels as you want.”

Navigating the Options

As simulation and visualisation technology advances, end users frequently can’t keep up. That means integrators have to spend more and more time educating them about what is – and isn’t – possible.

“The gap between the end user and the integrator very often is very big in terms of technical knowledge,” Løkke says.

For example, some users don’t realise that desktop applications can be ported to larger settings – and how that addresses their needs.

“They may not know, for example, that software such as 3DS Max, Catia, Pro/Engineer or even Google Earth can be made compatible with even the most advanced virtual reality environments, such as the CAVE that puts projection on up to six walls,” Brum says. “Those software applications are thought of as bound to the desktop, but enabling them to work in more advanced systems can generate high return.”

Users might have a good idea of what they want but not understand the different options. One is example is 3D.

“[In] active stereo technology, the simulation display is outputting 120 Hz images,” says
Peter De Meerleer, director of product management at Barco. “Advantages are that the simulation projection display is able to project both the image for the left and the right eye, [but a] disadvantage is that the active stereo glasses need to be in range of an IR emitter, synchronising the glasses with the projected stereo image. So the number of people able to see the stereo-image at the same time needs to be limited: 2-10.”

Going with the alternative – a system built around passive stereo glasses – has its pros and cons, too.

“[These] do not need emitters, so these images can be viewed with very large audiences,” De Meerleer says. “But the disadvantage here is that the double amount of projectors is needed to project both the images for the left and the right eye. Barco also has a proprietary hybrid technology that combines the advantages of both: active stereo technology so the image for left eye and right eye is projected by the same display or projector, together with special passive glasses that do not need emitters.”

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