Where’s the Future of 3D interaction?

Published 28 July 2008

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: catia, dassault systemes, alias, enovia, 3dconnexion, user interaction, spacemouse, 3d control devices, wii, wiimote

3Dconnexion has just released details of research they’ve been doing into the return on investment, commercial pay back that can be gained from using its 3d motion control devices. According to the research those using 3D mouse devices users noted that they were comfortable using the 3D mouse within two days from the time they began using it (80% of them in fact) and 70% felt proficient within the first week.

The report (available at www.3Dconnexion.com/productivity) brings many more facts to light about the time that can be saved by adopting a tool that’s designed specifically for the job. It is really worth a read.

The question this raises for me is that that for decades now, many of us have been using 3D based design tools to develop new products on a daily basis, but still many of us are using the same keyboard and mouse combo that we have had since time immemorial. Let’s not forget that the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow down typists on mechanical typewriters so they wouldn’t jam up - is that really the optimum way of interacting with 3D data?

Users are now becoming much more familiar with 3D based working practices, particularly in the professional design related sphere of influence - but I do wonder where we’re headed next?

The last few events I’ve attended have seen references to how Nintendo have changed the 3D interaction world with the Wii and specifically, the WiiMote device.

Dassault demonstrated how the WiiMote device can interact with CAD-related data at the recent DEVCON event in Paris. Of course, Dassault has an interest in Gaming technology because of its Virtools technology (which now supports the Wii platform) and has a head start on many of the CAD company’s not involved in the industry. Dassault’s Bernard Charles also hinted at the same event that their development team is currently working on a hardware-based device for Catia and Enovia users. A chat with the head of their Research and Development team confirmed that this might be in the offing.

Elsewhere, a CAD user has built a drive to allow the use of the WiiMote within Autodesk’s Design Review and the same tool has been made available on the Autodesk Labs website.

I’m reminded of a chat I had with Bill Buxton, the then Chief Scientist of Applied Sciences at Alias Wavefront, who, ten years ago, talked about many of the things that are only now coming to light. If you take a look at his personal web-site, then you can see many of the devices that his team worked on back then. And if you want a further interesting read, get hold of his Sketching User Experiences book. It’s honestly one of the best books on subject I’ve ever read and should be on every designers bookshelf.

Bringing us back to 3Dconnexion and its research, I’m amazed that the company still is the only vendor actively pursuing this area. The potential to do really interesting things has been there for some time. Many have come and gone.

The Dimentor Inspector - combined a trackball and optical mouse - and had around the same lifespan as the average rodent.

There was the Dimentor Inspector device from Sweden, which combined a mouse with a trackball to navigate in 3D (I’ve still got one sat in a box in the loft). It only really worked with SolidWorks and the company was only around for a year or so.

Others have had a crack at it with limited success and I find it strange that its only 3Dconnexion that has managed to actually achieve any form of market penetration - and I take my hat off to them. They took some time to develop truly usable products and made a few mistakes on the way. I still use a prototype of the original, but short lived, SpaceNavigator device, which saw the integration of a SpaceMouse with a Logitech Keyboard (3Dconnexion’s parent company) - and promptly got canned.

I’m off to interview the guys in charge of SpaceMouse products in a couple of weeks and if anyone has any questions, ideas or information they’d like me to ask, to find out, then I’d be more than happy to ask and report back on the response I get.

And don’t get me started on MultiTouch - that’s stuff is coming - its an exciting new world and as professional users of 3D, we’re looking to get the most out of it.

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Autodesk Subs get real

Published 24 July 2008

Posted by Martyn Day

Article tagged with: dell, workstations

Autodesk’s Subscription to date, has been little more than paying for the next release, which has settled into a yearly cycle around the March time-frame. One would hope that in the concept of a yearly subscription you would get more than one update. Looking at Bentley’s SELECT subscription it’s hard to tell what the feature set of MicroStation is, as it changes every month and quarter. Autodesk started out by streaming features and updates randomly through the year but this didn’t work and so fell back on paying for the next release. The company also monkied with the upgrade fees making Autodesk Subscription the most cost effective way of owning any Autodesk product.

It’s hard to generate good customer spirit if updates are sold on cost of ownership and you are literally paying for the next release - which they may or may not even use. While Autodesk has benefitted greatly from the increase in regular revenue, Autodesk Subscription has been suffering from a little complacency.

The good news is that Autodesk’s AutoCAD product team has launched ‘Flexible Software Delivery’, which harks back to a more traditional concept, where updates and new features are added when they are ready, as opposed to when the next major release comes around. this means the software is delivered on demand. No more boxes hanging around and you can select what features you want.

So in addition to the yearly update, there will be Subscription Bonus packs which will include early releases of upcoming features. the first one is scheduled for July 24th and will include several AUGi wish-list items. These will only be available to subscribers. Also Product updates, for all customers, will replace service packs, to fix bugs and drivers.

One wonders if this will be copied across Autodesk’s many Divisions? The complexity of non-synchronized change across Autodesk’s products was the downfall at the first attempt, we will have to wait to see as to how this invigoration of Subscription works out.

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Dell Precision R5400 rack mounted workstation review

Published 22 July 2008

Posted by greg corke

Article tagged with:

In May HP rolled out its long awaited MCAD-focussed Blade Workstation solution. Drawing inspiration from traditional client/server models HP’s Blades are housed in a densely populated rack locked away in a secure data centre. Each workstation is controlled remotely by a thin client that sits on an engineer’s or designer’s desk, but rather than sending ‘CAD’ data to the client, the Blade transmits live pixel data frame by frame to the client using a high-bandwidth, low latency network. And with mouse and keyboard actions being sent back to the Blade this gives the user a real time experience just as if they had the workstation sat underneath their desk.

Today, Dell unveiled its own Rack mounted workstation, the Precision R5400. This is essentially a standard desktop workstation put into a 2U Rack form factor, and not a Blade server kitted out with workstation graphics as is the case with HP’s solution. The template for the R5400 is the Dell Precision 5400 and features virtually identical components as its desktop counterpart. According to Dell, this meant that certification from all the leading CAD/CAM/CAE vendors was incredibly easy as it had already done it for the Precision 5400.

Just as with HP’s Blade solution, Dell’s R5400 Rack workstation transmits pixel data across a high-bandwidth, low latency network. However, whereas HP uses in-house software compression technology to do this, Dell has opted for third-party hardware acceleration courtesy of Teradici. This is in the form of a dedicated PCIe card that sits inside each Rack Mounted workstation and pixel data is compressed, encrypted, sent out over CAT5 and decompressed client side.

While I say client, Dell says Remote Access Device and was keen to emphasise that its FX100 Remote Access Device, which provides the desktop element to the Rack Workstation solution, does not run an Operating system, and does not require any drivers. It’s simply connected to the Rack Workstation across a network, and unlike HP’s Blade client has no CPU, RAM or solid state memory.

Inside the R5400

Component for component the Precision R5400 is virtually identical to the desktop Precision 5400. Dual socket Dual Core (up to 3.33GHz) or Quad Core (up to 3.0GHz) Xeon processors provide plenty of processing power for CAD, simulation and rendering applications; it can house up to two 7,200RPM SATA 3GB/s hard drives (Raid 1 or 0 for performance or redundancy), and most interestingly it has capacity for two high-performance graphics cards, which it supports in its 2U chassis with riser cards.

Dell offers a full range of professional graphics cards inside the R5400 from the entry-level Nvidia Quadro FX 570, right up to the high-end Quadro FX 4600. This gives the R5400 a serious amount of graphics power, and while two high-performance graphics cards will be of limited benefit to most users, this could be an extremely interesting proposition for the future as momentum grows for offloading highly parallel simulation and rendering compute tasks from CPU to GPGPU (General Purpose Graphic Processing Unit).

Memory inside the R5400 is restricted to 4 DIMM slots. This means a maximum of 32GB of RAM when 8GB DIMMS become available or more importantly affordable, but for now a capacity of 8 or 16GB is more realistic.


A cynic might say that Dell only threw its Rack Mounted workstation together in response to HP’s Blade workstation, but that is probably way off the mark for a solution that is as highly flexible, scalable and powerful as the R5400. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the two solutions and while Dell loses out to HP in terms of compute density by using a 2U Rack it certainly has a clear advantage when it comes to graphics. Dell’s R5400 not only offers significantly more 3D power than the mobile Quadro FX 1600M inside HP’s Blade but the potential to re-route this power to augment or replace traditional CPU operations should not be underestimated, particularly with simulation and design visualisation growing in all areas of product development.

In terms of the way in which the two solutions transmit their pixel data I’m not going to be drawn into the debate over whether hardware compression is better than software compression, simply because I haven’t tested out both systems alongside each other. But what the Dell may gain in terms of taking some of the load off the CPU with its dedicated PCIe card, it loses in flexibility by having to have dedicated hardware at the client side.

What is clear is that both ‘remote’ workstations offer a compelling solution for those wishing to centralise IT support of their machines, to keep confidential data secure and easier to manage, to make the most of their workstation investment by using it as a ready-made cluster for performing overnight ocompute tasks , and to offer workstation performance in inhospitable areas such as the shop floor where dust ‘kills’ workstations. And now with high-end graphics inside the Dell Precision R5400, as long as you have a capable dedicated network in place there is very little a desktop workstation can do that Remote workstation can’t. It’s going to be an interesting few years to see how things pan out.


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Essentials for the mobile generation

Published 20 July 2008

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: design, industrial design, innovation, macbook, services, mobile working

As more and more of us work from home, from Starbucks, the greasy spoon around the corner from the office (to get some peace) or from economy class lounge (biz class is for the over paid, under worked), then we all will resonate with the simple fact that squeezing your laptop into the present space is a royalpaininthearse. I doubt we’ll see them at D3D’s service stations* of choice soon, but its clever thinking (note, I’m not using the I word).

According to designer Robin Carpenter JUST is made of an inner metal frame construction defining the form which is upholstered for comfort. The chair is covered with a washable textile and the stand allows 360 horizontal rotation. His IRO lamp is pretty slick too.

*Oxford M40 and M6 Toll - covered outdoors areas, good coffee and a 3G signal

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Tormach brings mill/turn

Published 15 July 2008

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: prototype, cam, cnc, milling, turning, millturn, tormach

I don’t know how familiar these guys are to our readers, but Tormach has some pretty nifty prototyping kit. they’ve got a range of CNC machines aimed at the higher-end hobbiest, prototyping market and the costs are pretty slick too. This month, they’ve launched an add-on for their CNC milling machines that gives you lathe or turning capability; for an extra $1150.

It seems that the Duality Lathe component is retrofitted to an existing PCNC 1100 mill, so you can effectively mill/turn in a single step - and it can be used in a manual fashion for those that love dialling in the numbers by hand.

I’m not too sure if these things are avialable in Europe, with the voltage difference, but they should be. Got to be a better bet that a 15 year old Bridgeport

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Big Brother is watching you!

Published 11 July 2008

Posted by greg corke

Article tagged with: solidworks, industrial design, bicycle, strida

This post is not to do with product development technology per se, but a press release I found in my inbox this morning really quite disturbed me. Spector 360 Corporate Monitoring software uncovers Internet abuse, lost productivity, data leaks and other inappropriate activities, so says the marketing spiel. In other words it spies on employees.

It can tell which employees are spending the most time surfing the Internet, which employees are chatting the most, who is typing the most keystrokes, who is downloading music and other large files, who is taking the longest breaks, and who is leaving work early. Who knows, soon it might be able to tell who is doing the least Boolean operations per hour.

Now call me traditional, and maybe a bit naive, but what happened to good old fashioned management? What about engaging with employees on a day to day basis to encourage, and motivate and get the most out of them, rather than beating them with an Orwellian type stick if they take their hands off the keyboard for more than five minutes. It worries me.

If I was an employee at a company that utilised such technology I know I’d have real trouble relaxing, knowing that I was being seen as a mere statistic as my every action is recorded, logged and analysed by a faceless manager who lives in a box. And when I’m not relaxed the quality of my work suffers.

But never mind, eh, as long as I’m churning out my 40 words per minute I should be able to keep the Thought Police at bay - for a while, at least, until they realise I’m not actually writing about product development technology after all, and then it’s Room 101 for me and my thoughtcrimes. Bad citizen!

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Back in the Fold - the Strida returns

Published 05 July 2008

Posted by Martyn Day

Article tagged with:

I’m excited as there is a new version of my favourite folding bike on sale. The Strida is the brain-child of UK industrial designer, Mark Sanders. I regularly shove it my Strida into the passenger seat of my car and take it away with me. Yes, it looks odd and nobody ever seems to have ever seen one before but I wholeheartedly endorse one of these bikes if you are looking for a foldable bike. This clip is an interview with Mark, where he explains his design concepts and process. About half-way through you see that now Mark uses SolidWorks to design and reduce the number of prototypes, but sketching and ‘feel’ are bedrocks for his process.


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