Design Tools of Tomorrow: Sculpt on Screen

16 Mar, 2006 By: Ron LaFon

Touch-and-feel haptic devices now in the works could revolutionize how we shape products.

Today, people interact with computers primarily through two senses--sight and sound. Researchers are hard at work on technology to incorporate a third sense, touch. Sure, we bang away on our keyboards and spin a mouse wheel or trackball, but the ultimate goal is to allow designers to manipulate models on screen as if they were touching them.

"Touch and Design" is one such research project. This European Union Technology Project is currently in the second of three years. Among its goals are the digitization of the entire product-development process and the incorporation of artistic expression into design work via a haptic device that provides tactile feedback.

It's supported by various European entities, including think3, a developer industrial design and product-development solutions. Think3 is no stranger to software innovation, having pioneered such features as built-in voice recognition and game-based learning tools.

Designers typically build physical prototypes in clay, foam or wood, although these models are often expensive -- and difficult to test. CAD modelers don't offer an intuitive user interface and often require a significant amount of mathematical knowledge. "Touch and Design" aims to develop a novel tool for designers that offers new dimensions in creativity and usability.

How does a designer interact with the computer in this way? Two features facilitate the use of haptic elements in design: the virtual rake and virtual haptic sandpaper.

A designer would typically use a rake to shape a real object such as clay, or sandpaper to change the shape of wood or other real-world objects. These capabilities are transferred to a virtual environment using the haptic technology. The designer can grab a haptic device that is connected to the computer and make the shape change in space, using his hands while looking at the object on the computer screen. The technology translates that complex motion in space and makes the shape instantly change on the computer, with the designer having the capability to both see and "feel" the object being shaped in front of him.

A user experiences the interactive Touch and Design haptic device.

The benefit of such technology is allowing the designer to have a close-to-real experience -- in 3D, where the changes are captured accurately to the underlying geometry, saving both time and effort and providing the opportunity to make more iterations on the design in a short period of time.

Although the haptic interface is still under development, it may well represent how CAD design evolves over time. Using this approach, the need to build physical prototypes will be reduced, and both development costs and the time-to-market for new products will be drastically reduced.

There are haptic devices available today, from vendors such as Sensable and Immersion. But software support is also required for such devices to become commonplace on the designer's desktop.

In addition to think3, the European Union Technology Project includes Alessi, Pininfarina, FCS-CS, Eiger and the Politecnico di Milano Technical University. Additional information is available on the think3 Web site.