Over the past year, CAD has seen some major changes. We went from incremental improvements spread across suites of CAD applications to new ways of modeling, opening up the application to potentially larger number of users. It’s definitely been interesting to see the industry reinvigorated with many new discussions and lots of passion.
As I look around at the wider technology space, I keep asking myself: has this really been a revolution?
In the rest of this post, I’ll run down some technology advancements we’ve seen over the past couple of years. I’ll then relate how I think it can apply to CAD. Then at the end, I’ll offer my thoughts. Let’s go.
Replace the Mouse
When you look around at how technology has changed over the past couple of years, it’s impossible to ignore the impact of tablets. But in this case, I don’t think a ‘game changer’ is necessarily the mobility of the tablet, but how you interact with the tablet. Of course, touch interaction is the first thing we all think about. And of course that is important. But I think multi-touch gestures is actually more relevant here. Specifically, Apple has come out with something called a Magic Trackpad where you can use different numbers of fingers in the same motion to do different things. Here’s a rundown of the functionality here.
Brush two fingers along the Multi-Touch surface to scroll in any direction — vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.
Using three fingers, brush left and right along the Multi-Touch surface to page forward and back.
With your thumb and index finger on the Multi-Touch surface, twist clockwise or counterclockwise to rotate an image.
Notice any similarities here? Scroll, pan, rotate? We have similar functions in CAD. Now I’m not advocating this specific device, but it is an example of what can be done with such a device.
Now, does this offer some advantage over a 3D mouse, say from 3DConnexion? I’d say very little in terms of actually controlling the CAD model spatially. But there are additional capabilities that something like a Magic Trackpad offers that a 3D mouse does not. The former let’s you switch between applications with swipes. It let’s you launch new applications by pinching multiple fingers together. And there are productivity gains to be found there. And I’m sure some innovative uses of this kind of device could find its way into CAD.
Throw Away the Mouse
Looking for something more radical? There’s always the Kinnect from Microsoft. What is it? It basically replaces the game controller for an XBOX 360 game console. It has stereo cameras and sensors to generate a 3D image of you as you stand in front of the console. It recognizes your hands and other body parts which you can then use to control a game. In all seriousness, you can use it as the interface without pushing any buttons or pushing joysticks.
How is a game controller applicable to CAD? Well, it’s no longer for the XBOX 360 game console. Microsoft has official plans to let you connect the Kinnect to a PC, even though hacks are already ahead of them. Heck, there are even youtube tutorials that show you how to do it. Interestingly, Blake Courter has already played around with hooking up a Kinnect to Spaceclaim through their SDK. You’ll need to scrub forward to roughly the 50 minute mark.
What’s the advantage of doing such a thing? Evan Yares has blogged about cognitive load with respect to CAD. He’s got a ton of good stuff up that you should check out. But basically, there are a lot of complex concepts in CAD that make it difficult for casual users to pick it up. I think Evan’s primary point is if you can reduce that complexity, in terms of interface or building geometry, casual users will have more success.
But in addition to that, I believe this sort of interaction might get CAD onto the big screen too. Prices on larger screened TVs have been dropping. And its not inconceivable that one day, designers and engineers just stand in front of a big screen TV, holding their hands out with no devices necessary.
Now I glossed over this earlier in this post when I wrote about multi-touch and gesture interactions, but going mobile is a relevant trend for engineers and designers. The engineers I know run from their desk, to conference rooms, the shop floor, suppliers offices and their customer’s campuses. I think that mobility is simply a fact of life today.
Could you potentially design products on a tablet? Well, I don’t think the solution would end up being on the tablet alone. It would probably be something more like ‘CAD in the Cloud’ with the tablet driving it. And yes, there’s been a LOT of discussions about that (google search on CAD in the Cloud).
I won’t rehash all that hysteria, but I will say this: it would be advantageous. If you could turn some of that downtime during travel into partial productive time to design, then that’s a good use of technology. Engineers are crushed for time and need help managing their workload and improving their quality of life. For me, that’s where this fits.
Talk to Me
Of course, how could I talk about technology advancements without touching on talking to devices? Ray Kurland was probably the first to give voice (pun intended) to the idea of using this type of technology for CAD.
Obviously, Apple has made a splash with Siri, although some debate its usefulness. But regardless, I’d be very surprised if Apple didn’t make this functionality available in Lion (their OS for their computers) one day. I do foresee a day when you can talk and ask your computer to do things… and it actually does it. Hal nightmares aside, there are productivity gains to be reaped.
And if you have doubts about the feasibility of such a thing, one need only look at Nuance’s Dragon Naturally Speaking line of products. Many know them for their dictation software, which works quite well, but they also already let you use voice to control your computer… at least to an extent. This actually is very close to reality now. It’s not a matter of if it can be done, it’s how much can be done.
How’s this apply to CAD? I think we all know that, at least from a parametric feature-based modeling approach, there are many commands and tools you can use to create geometry. Part of the advantage of something like Siri or Dragon is natural language recognition, meaning it’s not as important how you say something or in what sequence you say something, it’s what you say. These software tools can understand what you are trying to do, even if you say it differently each time. I think that sort of functionality could let casual users interact with CAD more easily, letting them avoid committing every single menu item to memory.
I’m in Your Head… or at Least Your Eyes
Back in October of last year, Josh Mings of Solidsmack wrote a post about eye tracking software and what it means for design. He runs down the advancements that have been made in this field that are pretty amazing. Basically, eye tracking lets the computer know where you are looking on-screen.
How’s this applicable to CAD? A complex interaction required of CAD is selection. To move a surface, you have to select it. To move a part, you have to select it. This has traditionally been done with a right mouse button. But maybe eye tracking software could be a proxy? Maybe you blink to select? I don’t know the exact answer. Could you use the Kinnect approach for selection? Probably. But I think the thing that multi-touch and gestures show us is that we can use multiple inputs in combination for some pretty amazing interactions with computers. I think this could be used to augment some of the other tools and technologies we’ve talked about so far.
What Does It All Mean?
OK. I’m done rambling about the technology. So let’s get down to brass tacks.
Many CAD software providers have recently undergone some huge investments in their CAD suites to incorporate new technologies, to undergo some consolidation or reposition their technology. Would they want to undertake an effort to incorporate one of these technologies into toolsets? Let’s be honest. The answer is probably no. Many are extremely busy with what they have on their plate right now. And to be honest, I don’t blame them. They probably need to see their current efforts through to completion.
Does that mean these types of advances won’t happen? Well, I wouldn’t say that. There might be a small upstart wanting to disrupt the market with this kind of approach. I believe the value proposition is real. I believe some of these technologies are mature enough to start moving in this direction. In my eyes, the opportunity is real. It’s a matter of who goes after it.
Conclusions and Questions
Alright, let’s recap.
- There are new multi-touch and gesture based tools that have emerged. This could potentially offer some marginal improvements over 3D mouse tools.
- There is new technology in the form of Kinnect, which will soon be able to be connected to PCs, that recognize physical gestures to control your computer and software applications. This could be used to make the user interface easier for casual users.
- Many roles are going mobile. CAD on a tablet, which might require CAD in the Cloud, could offer some productivity while away from the desk.
- Voice recognition tools like Siri and Dragon Dictation offer another interaction paradigm that might be easier that point and click interactions. Again, this would seem to benefit casual users.
- Eye tracking technologies are maturing. For CAD, this might be yet another interaction paradigm that, if combined with others, could offer more productivity gains.
So there you have it. The ramblings of a man mad about CAD. I’m interested to hear what other technologies that you’ve seen that could make a mark in the CAD industry. Also, do you see any deficiencies in the technologies listed here that would keep them from working in the CAD industry? Sound off. Let us know what you think.
Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.