How quickly virtual reality, or VR, is going to take off is a common question these days. But for aerospace firm Airbus it has been part of the aircraft development process since the late 1990s.
Airbus engineer Dieter Kasch has been working with the technology since 1997, originally on the Airbus A380. Since then, virtual reality has made huge advances, today operating on a far more sophisticated level thanks to the evolution of computer power and the technology's place in the company's own design strategy.
"The A380 was the first aircraft to be completely designed in 3D, and for all A380s, virtual reality supported the cabin-definition process, from the customer's initial request through to the finalization," Kasch says.
While VR is used in every phase, and every area, of the aircraft's development, from the cockpit to the engine and wings, virtual reality really comes into its own for cabin design.
"It's the area that requires the most adaptation from each customer because there are millions of possibilities," he says. "Now airlines are able to see exactly how their cabins will look in advance."
In the past, cabin design ideas would be drawn up using a 2D sketching device, and then customers would have to choose from the resulting design elements shown in a 50cm-thick catalog. Clients needed a good imagination to visualize the final result.
But with the development of technology and expertise at Airbus's innovation cave in Hamburg, the process has undergone a revolution.
Michael Lau, program manager of cabin design at Airbus, says: "It means customers are able to see what they'll get at the end, right at the beginning."
The cabin development period varies from client to client and can last either several months or several years. One constraint is that it can take a long time to input all the information into the database in a standard format, a necessity for the system to work effectively.
However, once all the data has been entered, changes can be made relatively easily and clients are invited to view new mock-ups as often as they like.
Kasch says, for example, the CEO of Emirates has visited the VR center many times since its opening, as well as specialists from engineering, marketing, cabin crews, and other suppliers.
"It's a very efficient platform for discussions and making decisions," he says, adding that if a customer requires a change to their cabin layout, the turnaround time can be fast.
"Sometimes we just need hours or days to change the data for the digital mock-up if it's just a minor change, like the distance between the seats needing to be bigger," Kasch says. "Also, if the client's design company changes something, we can directly import it and see the changes immediately."
The center employs DeltaGen software, which was first used in the automotive industry, to bring the CAD data to life and has adapted it to work on aircraft cabins.
By using Ramsis, or realistic anthropological mathematical system for interior comfort simulation, a 3D CAD ergonomics tool integrated into DeltaGen, Airbus has developed a digital human modeling system that lets clients experience an immersive 3D experience of their proposed cabin design and explore the practicalities of that design.
Using a headset by Nvisinc with tracker balls, which are linked to cameras that trace the location within the cabin, a client is offered an immersive 3D or augmented-reality experience. In this setting, it's possible to walk around and experience the cabin as it would appear after installation.
If, for example, a customer wanted to find out if there is enough room for the steward's trolley to be pushed down an aisle, this experience can be recreated in the cave by walking a real trolley through the virtual scenario.
"The trolley can weigh up to 120kg, so an important task is to consider its weight and effect on the physical movement of the flight attendant while he or she's walking," Kasch says. "We can show this directly in the VR, by recording the movement so the customer can see how their solution is working."
As the quality of visualization has improved, Airbus' goal of being able to offer clients a mixed-reality experience has become a possibility. Today's computer systems offer highly-detailed imagery of surfaces and textures that are photorealistic, which wasn't possible 10 to 15 years ago.
Mixed reality combines the advantages of Airbus's Customer Definition Center, where cabins are physically presented like a showroom, with an immersive experience.
"This is a combination of virtual reality and the physical aspect. You can feel the carpet or, say, put the original seat from the supplier in and make it feel as though the entire row of seats is installed," Kasch says.
"You can also, for example, install a seat, calibrate it with the interiors theme, and then sit in the aisle or window seat and see different views of your cabin from these varying positions.
"The important thing is that clients can now see what they're going to get. This branding is very important for the customer. Changes at a late stage cost time and money, so it helps us deliver our aircraft on time and on budget."