Some time ago, I wrote about the Long and Winding Road of 3D Visualization. Basically, what used to be a general technology that could be applied to practically anything has evolved into a wide variety of niche software products, each specializing in a different area. That means there’s lots of ground to cover to get a complete picture of what can be done with 3D models today. What does each one do? That’s the question I had in mind as I reached out to the folks at NGRAIN.

In this post, you’ll get an overview of capabilities provided by NGRAIN’s products, which focus on authoring and consuming 3D-based  materials, as well as my commentary and analysis. And just to give you a hint, there’s an application of 3D models here that I’ve never seen before. Read on!

Capabilities of NGRAIN’s Products

Alright. Let’s get started. First off, here are what products NGRAIN offers.

Here’s the definition from wikipedia.

A voxel (volume element), represents a value on a regular grid in three dimensional space. Voxel is a combination of “volumetric” and “pixel” where pixel is a combination of “picture” and “element”.

It is important to note that this is a different kind of representation compared to the boundary representations used by most of the CAD and other applications that play in the 3D space. Boundary representations use mathematical equations to render 3D geometry. As I understand it, Voxels are the discretized representations of 3D geometry. Now, on to the products!

These are similar capabilities seen in other software applications. You read in a 3D model, often from CAD, add stuff and publish it out to a number of different formats, which can then be consumed by a broader audience that don’t know how to use CAD or other 3D visualization tools. This is basically table stakes for these kind of tools.

But this is the point where the story gets really interesting.

@NGRAIN briefing (8/10) > Deliverables can be loaded on #iPad app, camera used to overlay on physical items for augmented reality > #3D #CAD

This might be a difficult concept to understand, so let me cover it piecemeal. Once you add stuff to the 3D model and publish it, you can load it onto a tablet. Again, this is standard stuff. But then you can use it for an augmented reality use. Now for those not familiar with that concept, let me provide some context. Again, let’s reference wikipedia’s definition.

Augmented reality (AR) is a live, copy, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.

So let me put this into an example.

You’re looking at the engine in your car. You hold up your tablet and enter an augmented reality app. Now, you can see the engine on your tablet’s screen via your tablet’s camera. Then, the 3D model that had stuff added to it is transparently overlaid on top of the camera’s image. So now, you have the real live physical engine on your tablet’s screen with a semi-transparent digital 3D model representation laid on top of it. To get the live engine and digital engine to align correctly in 3D space, you match up markers. There are predefined ones on the digital 3D model. You simply designate on the life engine where those same markers are at. Viola. The two are aligned.

Now, all of the stuff that has been aded to the digital 3D model can be shown in that overlay. That includes notes, measurements as well as animations. Obviously those animations can show maintenance procedures, disassembly processes, test documentation and much more. But interestingly, that’s not where this use case ends.

That’s right. These digital 3D models already have information embedded in them like part numbers. Integrations can be built to take those part numbers, interrogate an ERP system, pull the inventory numbers agains that part number and show them in this same overlay. Suddenly, this app becomes a lot more than just an augmented reality replay of a digital model. Users can use it as an interface to access information in other enterprise systems.

Commentary and Analysis

Sounds like cool stuff, right? But where’s the value?

From a standard authoring-consumption perspective, I’m not sure the capabilities provided by NGRAIN’s products are groundbreaking. Many different software applications can ingest 3D models from CAD, allow users to add a variety of stuff to it and then publish it out to a variety of formats. The 3KO format, which is voxel based, sounds interesting. NGRAIN folks swear for their product’s usability. If this sort of workflow is your objective, check out the products and compare them to others.

From an augmented reality perspective, the story here is compelling. The concept behind 3D-based augmented reality offers a brand new way for users to consume a range of materials, including training, service, manufacturing, testing, quality and much more. The combination of notes, animations and more not just on top of a digital 3D model, but overlaid on top of the real physical item is powerful. It cuts through any errors that can occur when individuals need to interpret documentation. If you’re considering this kind of approach or are already pursuing this approach, take a hard look at this product set.

Recap and Summary

  • NGRAIN offers three software products based on voxel technology (wikipedia definition): Constructor SDK, Producer Pro and Production Suite.
  • Producer Pro and Production Suite allow users to open 3D models from other sources, like CAD, add additional stuff to them, like notes, dimensions, animations and more, and then publish the result to a variety of formats
  • Others can consume that 3D-based documentation independently of CAD or 3D visualization tools. The resulting documentation can also be published and loaded onto tablets.
  • From a standard authoring-consumption perspective, these capabilities are fairly standard. Look at this product set if that is your objective.
  • The resulting documentation can also be overlaid onto real physical items, creating a 3D-based augmented reality (wikipedia definition) environment. A semi-transparent version of the 3D digital model is overlaid on the physical item, showing those notes, animations and more in the context of a live item.
  • Furthermore, this documentation can be connected to enterprise systems, pulling information such as inventory, delivery dates and more to further enhance the experience.
  • From an augmented reality perspective, the story here is compelling. Take a hard look at this product set if this is a current initiative or is being considered.

Folks, that’s my take. I’m curious to get your perspective on this augmented reality case. How close are we to actually putting this into practice? Any thoughts?

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.