Why visualisation technologies are in high demand

“It is not only visual technologies that have become very present, but also more and more audio innovations, like soundscaping or highly sophisticated beamforming microphones.”

Oil prices are rising again, so it’s no surprise that airlines are considering bringing back fuel surcharges. Long-haul flights out of Hong Kong, for example, could cost an extra €65 if regulators there approve the hikes

The last time fuel surcharges were the norm, it was good news for videoconferencing vendors because it gave enterprises another incentive to buy more of them. This time, visualisation could be the beneficiary, and for similar reasons. 

Visualisation is a catchall term spanning immersive technologies such as augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) systems that use head-mounted displays (HMDs), and “power walls” consisting of large displays or blended projection. Another type is CAVE systems, whose name is both an acronym for automatic virtual environment and a reference to the cave allegory in Plato’s “Republic”.

“We’ve built up to six-sided caves [but] there aren’t so many of those,” says Kurt Doornaert, Barco director of VR experience. “There are quite a lot of five-sided CAVEs. The majority are three sides plus the floor.” 

All of these technologies are at least a couple of decades old, but lately they’ve benefitted from trends such as graphics processors that get faster as they get cheaper. 

“It is not only visual technologies that have become very present, but also more and more audio innovations, like soundscaping or highly sophisticated beamforming microphones.”

“The pricing of CAVEs has come down over the past five years,” Doornaert says. “They’re much cheaper and much simpler. In the past, you needed a large amount of space. Now there are new technologies. The projector can be compact. They use ultra-short-throw lenses. This is all helping narrow the footprint. We’re also looking at ways to drive the CAVEs with less computers.” Another adoption driver is that a lot of the necessary content is already digitised—such as computer-assisted design (CAD) files for cars, planes and buildings—so users and integrators don’t have to spend time and money converting that. 

“There will be further immersive technologies in the future, driven by the possibilities of artificial intelligence (AI), for example laser- based holography techniques,” says Thomas Euring, a partner at German consultancy Hartmann, Mathias + Partner (hmpartner). “It is not only visual technologies that have become very present, but also more and more audio innovations, like soundscaping or highly sophisticated beamforming microphones. They make visualisation become an authentic and efficient collaborative surrounding.” 

Big data at scale 
One of hmpartner’s recent visualisation projects is CFOspace at Ernst & Young’s Eschborn, Germany, office. The 65 sq m room includes four videowalls on the walls, LED on the ceiling and surroundsound.

“The aim is not only to view data but also to process it at the same time,” says Carsten Langerwisch, another hmpartner partner. “The data visualisation surrounding allows several people to collaborate interactively. Correlations in data cannot only be detected more quickly but can also be processed in a more creative and efficient manner.” 
Engineers looking a virtual model
Ernst & Young is one of the world’s largest accounting firms, so it’s an example of how the visualisation market isn’t limited to companies that make things. Instead, CFOspace shows how visualisation is equally attractive to businesses that work with big data, whose prevalence is another market driver. 

“For sectors like the big data industry, those technologies are essential,” Langerwisch says. CFOspace also is an example of how visualisation systems increasingly span multiple locations. 

“Several external participants can be invited into every use case, for example via Skype for Business,” Langerwisch says. 

As with videoconferencing, part of the business case for multi-site visualisation collaboration is that it reduces the need for travel—and thus expenses such as hotels and flights, as well as lost productivity. Those savings can be especially persuasive if the people using visualisation are highly skilled and highly compensated, such as senior engineers and scientists. 

Time savings can be another driver. 

“If you have something that’s critical, you want a meeting now, not in a week or whenever people can get lined up,” says Mike Hancock, vice president of solutions at Mechdyne, a US- based integrator that specialises in visualisation. 

Road shows 
Another travel-related example is trade shows. One of Mechdyne’s clients is Genesis Systems Group, which makes industrial robots. They’re big and heavy, which makes it expensive to bring even a few models to a show. 

“If you have something that’s critical, you want a meeting now, not in a week or whenever people can get lined up.” 

Mechdyne developed a portable visualisation system featuring screens in a curved, four-by- four tile configuration wide enough that up to eight people can collaborate simultaneously. At shows, prospective Genesis customers can view robots in a virtual setting, including their own factory floor (if they provide a USB stick) with details such as the layout, workflow and the parts that the robot would handle. 

So Genesis shows two additional business benefits of visualisation. Portable systems save money through smaller, cheaper booths and lower shipping costs. They also can make money by wowing potential customers with immersive experiences that have a better chance of leading to follow-up discussions and sales. 

Genesis says visualisation is directly responsible for two sales totalling over €8.5 million and streamlining the sales process by two months. It uses the system at its headquarters, too. Use cases include collaborating with customers to finalise designs and enabling teams such as mechanical engineering and software programmers to understand how each of their elements will work together. In all of these use cases, the big business benefit is that it’s easier, cheaper and faster to tweak a design when it’s still virtual than when it’s just been installed in the customer’s factory. 

Some of NVIDIA’s automotive customers use visualisation to understand the driver’s experience in ways that clay models and other traditional approaches couldn’t enable. One example is the windshield. 

“Everybody thinks that’s the sexiest angle going: very sleek,” says Greg Jones, NVIDIA VR/ AR business development manager. 

“You get in the car and realise that the way the reflections hit off the windshield internally, the way the sun comes in, there’s a reflective surface, and you see the interior of the car in the windshield better than you see the outside world. 

“Without a high-tech visualisation simulation of the real environment, you have to build the car to see that it’s not going to work. Being able to do that photo-realistically is really important to make sure your design once built is going to work.”  

Augmented reality on ipad looking at robotNew market opportunities and old challenges 
Visualisation is something that AV firms can use internally, too. For example, some firms are expanding into energy efficiency applications, such as helping clients use lighting and HVAC systems more efficiently. Others are lamenting how clients frequently bring AV into projects too late, when a new building’s design is finalised, or how AV rarely gets to interact with architects. 

Visualisation is a way to address all of those problems and opportunities. For instance, visualisation can show a client and its architect that videoconferencing displays will get washed out by sunlight if a wall of windows stays in the design. The visualisation also could overlay weather-related big data to show how that sunlight will affect cooling and lighting expenses. 

“What are the thermal characteristics of that room? What’s the cost for cooling it?” Jones says. “So I’m going to multi- layer the visualisation: not just the light and photorealism, but [also] heat maps and the performance ratings of different things. Visualisation allows you to stack the data so you can get the full context of cooling systems compared to windows and lighting effects and time-of-day effects.” 

Many architects use visualisation, which means it’s also a technological common ground with AV firms. That can help build professional bridges. 

“If you read architectural magazines over the past 10 years, the two biggest revolutions are building information systems and VR,” Jones says. “What we’re seeing is not [just] photorealism but [also] ‘intermediate’ VR come in really early, even conceptual designs. They say: ‘I don’t need all of the materials. I just need to see what my design looks like at scale and be able to step into the room.’” 

“Without a high-tech visualisation simulation of the real environment, you have to build the car to see that it’s not going to work.”

Like automotive, architecture also is an example of how visualisation enables people to understand aspects that they otherwise would underestimate or overlook if the information were presented in other ways. 

“We think we can imagine at scale really well in our head,” Jones says. “It turns out that not many of us can do that well. Automotive, architecture and media/entertainment—all of these fields are looking at visualisation—and really high-end visualisation—much earlier in their pipeline than they did five or ten years ago.” 

Faster connectivity and more endpoint options 
Multi-site collaboration shows how visualisation benefits from the trend toward ever-faster wide- area networks. Of course, compression also helps because bandwidth will never be free and because there will always be some participants who don’t have a Gigabit connection. 

“We have a software product that allows 4K60 over network IP, not [just over] a dedicated hardware loop,” Hancock says. 

Just as important, Mechdyne’s solution gives participants some endpoint flexibility. That bodes well for visualisation because one reason why videoconferencing is now so common is because it evolved into something that could run on PCs, tablets and smartphones rather than just expensive, purpose-built devices. 

“It allows you to have a meeting in your visualisation system and send an image of that meeting to somebody with a laptop or even a cell phone,” Hancock says. “You can send it 3D if you’re doing 3D visualisation, and they have a 3D display.”

Participants also can view it on a 2D display if that’s all they have. Same thing if they have HMDs rather than a CAVE or power wall. 

“We have an aerospace client that has HMDs in one place and a large visualisation display in another location, and they work together collaboratively,” Hancock says. 

Sharing at arm’s length 
Visualisation use cases increasingly involve two companies collaborating on confidential information. One example is an automaker that needs an accessory supplier to understand the design of a new model so it can start developing products in time for the vehicle’s debut. 

“I need to share things with them so we can talk it through, [but] I don’t want to give them my CAD files,” Hancock says. “That’s a problem you wouldn’t think would occur, but the level of trust in automotive and aerospace—sometimes even in long-term relationships—is not as high as you might think.” 

Barco sees the same concern in automotive. 

“They’re very hesitant about sharing data,” Doornaert says. “We’re providing a solution where it’s much faster to visualize what you’re talking about but doing it in a safe and secure way.” 

Barco does that by generating a stream that the automaker’s supplier can view and interact with in its visualisation studio or with HMDs. 

“The only thing I’m streaming is pixels,” Doornaert says. “So if someone hacks the stream, you can take a screenshot, but all you see is pixels. With the technology we’re developing, you can’t steal raw data. This is generating a lot of interest to enhance collaboration but doing it in a fast, safe, secure way.” 

For some users, visualisation is attractive when the collaboration needs to be at a resolution that the companies’ videoconferencing systems can’t achieve. 

“Videoconferencing is 1080, which may not be good enough,” Hancock says. 

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