There’s little doubt that the so- called “consumerization” of software has greatly influenced the way people buy and use software. Low-cost, easy-to-use apps on smart phones and tablets are everywhere and do quite literally everything. There is little reason to doubt that easy-to-use, consumer-like tools will migrate to engineers’ desktops, already being seen as more and more lightweight engineering software tools are being ported to mobile platforms.
Now, imagine a world in which designers and engineers could pinch, flick and swipe to manipulate, move, and edit 3D designs on their computer screens. Apple brought these now-common, simple motion capture gestures to the masses with its game-changing iPhones and iPads. How long will it be before the traditional mouse is replaced in the professional design world with input tools that enable designers and engineers to more intuitively manipulate and interact with designs on their desktops?
A leap forward in 3D motion control
Real-time 3D motion tracking has always been a tricky and complex computing endeavor, though a necessary one for interactive simulation applications. A new startup, Leap Motion, has developed a small device, approximately the size of a cigarette lighter that attaches to any PC or Mac via a USB port, turning it into a gesture-recognition device.
Similar to Xbox’s Kinect, the Leap device will cost half as much ($70) and reportedly offers greater accuracy. The software that analyzes the images from the device’s three cameras can track all 10 of the user’s fingers and detect movements of less than one-hundredth of a millimeter. Such gesturing could replace the traditional mouse, which Leap Motion founder, 23-year-old David Holz, refers to as “a needless layer of technological complexity.”
Once calibrated, the Leap creates a 3D interaction space of four cubic feet to control the computer or device with precise gestures. Users interact with their software tools via a combination of swipes, flicks and pinches to move 3D models, sketch concepts or to make changes.
The company is offering developers a development kit to encourage them to build native apps or port existing tools over to support the device. In addition to gaming, the company will market its device to scientists and engineers who must analyze complex datasets through large 3D models and visualizations.
Modeling from within
The zSpace device is another 3D input device that provides users with a more intuitive manner in which to interact with 3D models. The device consists of a 24-inch LCD monitor mounted on a stand that tilts at about a 30-degree angle. Users wearing special 3D polarized (not wired or shuttered) glasses see 3D models as a 3D image. As such, they can work and interact with the 3D image on top of it or inside of it.
Users interact with drawings using a wired stylus. For determining its location relative to the screen, the stylus has optical and inertial sensors. The stylus has three buttons. The primary one selects objects, and the other two are user-definable. The tablet has a pair of widely spaced sensors that track the glasses, and then re-renders the 3D geometry in real time as you look around the model. 3D models appear to be floating in the screen or pop out of the screen.
Getting in touch with your data
Another company, Perceptive Pixel, sells LCD multi-touch displays that enable scientists and engineers to view, manipulate, analyze, and present complex datasets using the power of touch. The displays, which come in sizes ranging from 27-inch to 82-inch, provide users with a way to filter data, overlay data sets, create new views, drill down deeper into complex data, and move between relevant datasets for comparison in a natural, intuitive manner.
By using their hands, engineers and other professional users can interact with their data in a more natural and fluid manner so they can more quickly turn data into insight and explore new scenarios, accelerating the process of analyzing complex data. They also enable multiple participants to interact with data simultaneously, ideal for collaborative design or brainstorming sessions.