On the Job: PC Vendor Seeks Unique Design to Win Gamers' Hearts14 Oct, 2004 By: Cadalyst Staff Cadalyst
A couple of computer geeks are hanging out in Miami, tweaking systems so their games work better. The next thing you know, they're running a $100 million company called Alienware, selling high-performing PCs that look like they came from outer space. It's a modern-day twist on the classic Cinderella story -- and cutting-edge design firm Astro Studios helped make it happen by creating Alienware's iconic sci-fi brand of products.
"Astro Studios focuses on creating products that are relevant to the user and reflect the cultural influences around that user," explains Brett Lovelady, president of Astro. "In the case of Alienware, users express themselves in ways different from the mainstream culture. The target user group is young, online gamers who like science fiction, comic books, and new technologies. We sought to embody that total brand personality in a 3D form."
Astro used Alias StudioTools to create an all-new look, something that would establish a clear brand identity. Until then, Alienware had been making unique computer internals, but the outside of the computer was generic. Astro's lead designer Nate Cervantes and 3D director Adam Barry worked with Lovelady to create not just a front custom bezel, but a complete 360-degree uniquely molded skin (figure 1).
Figure 1. Initial designs show how Astro created not just a front custom bezel, but a complete 360-degree uniquely molded skin.
Flexible 3D Modeling
"StudioTools allows us to control complex surfaces better than anything else out there," explains Lovelady. "With it we can address the true subtleties of product design, expressing translucent or transparent properties and dealing with small surface changes and reflection," he adds (figure 2). "It's that really great look and feel that we're after. StudioTools helps us get it."
Figure 2. Astro Studios used Alias StudioTools to control the complex surfaces and transparent properties of the material to develop just the right sci-fi look for Alienware.
Astro sometimes uses StudioTools for active exploded views and full 3D tours of a product design, but the software is most often used for rapid visualization. "We grab different views, light them in different ways, add details," says Lovelady. "Sometimes we'll put together some quick surfaces in StudioTools and then export to Photoshop to sketch over the top, but we're finding ourselves doing less exporting and relying more on StudioTools as an illustration tool because it's so well adapted to the process of form manipulation and conceptualization."
The second-generation Alienware desktop computer, the ALX, features an even higher-speed processor than the original -- so fast that it has to be liquid cooled (figure 3). Astro anticipated this product development path by designing the original so that only one part needed to be removed for an easy upgrade.
Figure 3. The new Alienware ALX system is so fast and creates so much heat that it has to be water cooled. Astro created a special top for this model to provide access to the cooling system.
"Designing a product like this is a complex task," explains Lovelady. "Not every computer needs to be refrigerated. We had to adapt our design to real-world constraints like cooling and airflow and at the same time develop a strong persona that was appealing and expressive."
Judging by the awards the design has won and the fact that Alienware has tripled its sales since the brand was introduced -- in just a year and a half -- it looks like Astro has succeeded in accomplishing its goal.