AIN Blog: Virtually Impressive

 - November 21, 2012, 4:46 PM
Using the system's headset takes one into an virtual aircraft cabin.
The view on the other side of the headset is definitely more impressive.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is the value of being able to walk through a finished aircraft long before the first seat is installed or the first carpet? At NBAA last month, I was able to try out some new three-dimensional imaging technology that virtually created the interior of a business jet on the show floor out of thin air. Miami-based 3DVisualization Service traveled north to Orlando to display its product, which creates incredibly detailed interior locations that move in response as you walk through them. The system is portable, consisting of a laptop computer, an off-the shelf Microsoft Kinect camera (as used on the company’s Xbox gaming system) and a custom 3-dimensional headset produced by Washington, D.C.-based partner Sensics.

Once you place the somewhat clunky virtual reality headset over your face, you are transported into an amazingly realistic virtual environment, in the case of my demonstration, in the form of an Embraer Lineage 1000 cabin. The level of detail is stunning, right down to the weave of the carpet. A newspaper rests on a table along with a pen and a smartphone and you are forgiven if you reach down and try to grab them. Turn your head and across the aisle is another table set for meal service. A glance out a cabin window reveals clouds slowly drifting past in a blue sky. As you walk over and sit in a real folding chair, your virtual perspective of the cabin changes just as if you were settling into a plush leather club seat. The only real disconnect is that you do not see any part of yourself, as you move ghost-like through the visualization.

The system is aimed at airframers and completions houses that wish to demonstrate to customers what the interior of their aircraft will look like when complete. Indeed with enough floor space, an entire cabin could be laid out with actual furniture acting as place holders for what the user is experiencing as they stroll through the cabin. In smaller spaces, an operator can “jump” users to different locations in the simulation where they can walk around and enjoy the omni-directional perspective.

The experience is immersive, and to me it seemed as if I had entered the fictious “holodeck” from Star Trek: the Next Generation. As I traversed the “Lineage” cabin, a glance at the virtual flat-panel television showed it was playing a scene from The Avengers; the movie’s soundtrack volume even increased in the headset’s speakers as I walked toward it. “The more things you can put in it, the better the experience for the user,” said company president J.P. Magnano. No word on if they will be incorporating aromatherapy any time soon.

3D Visualizations began a decade ago creating interior renderings for airplane and mega-yacht customers, including heads of state and the Saudi royal family. It says it has even done Air Force One, but that’s way above my security clearance. To create the virtual wizardry, the Miami-based company uses CAD design files provided by the aircraft manufacturer as a starting point. To achieve the incredible level of realism, the company requests actual samples of the interior materials, which it then scans into its virtual world. The company then creates the detailed renderings from which it will then develop the virtual-reality walk-through. The entire labor-intensive process can take one to two months, and depending on the size of the aircraft can cost more than $30,000. As the technology continues to advance, Magnano believes that price will decrease.

Among its clients, the company counts numerous airframers as well as several completions specialists. Given the transportability of the system, those companies can take it to principals or designers and set it up for a “walk-through” to get their final seal of approval before costly material purchases are made. The company introduced the new virtual-reality product a year ago and since then it has done large-cabin aircraft such as the Boeing BBJ, Airbus A320 and the aforementioned Lineage. According to Magnano, the company could even theoretically create a virtual mammoth A380.

I left the booth thoroughly impressed, my mind a whirl with the possible tasks this technology will be applied to in the near and distant future, as it like many others before it, successfully leaps the chasm from science fiction to reality.