To be frank, this is a tough one for me to comprehend. When I go shopping, I like to experience the product with all five senses (or as many of the senses as permissible). When I go to American Eagle Outfitters for a new pair of jeans or a summer shirt, I like to feel the fabric. When I’m browsing a bookstore, I like to pick up the book and flip through the pages. When I’m restocking ground coffee, I tend to buy or reject brands based on how it smells. Would someone — say, a clothing retailer — be able to design a good shopping experience for me by constructing virtual store shelves inside a computer in pixels that cannot be felt, smelled, or touched?
Dassault Systemes seems to believe it’s possible. This week, the company launched Perfect Shelf, an addition to its consumer packaged goods (CPG) solutions. Perfect Shelf, according to Dassault, “[provides] realistic views of retail aisles including shelves, fixtures, products, lighting and promotional materials — allowing the shopping experience design process to take place significantly faster, with greater extent and flexibility and at lower cost.” Continue reading
Even though SolidWorks hasn’t done much to reach out to the iPad user community, the company seems to be acknowledging the tablet’s appeal among its customers. In a promotion that began running earlier this month, SolidWorks promises, “When you purchase a new license of SolidWorks Premium with subscription, your participating reseller will send you an iPad 2.” Continue reading
For the title of this post, I’m borrowing a few words from the rousing battle cry of Henry V, as imagined by the immortal Anglo-Saxon bard Shakespeare. To defeat the French defense of Harfleur, Henry urged his troops to once again forge ahead:
Once more unto the breach, Dear Friends, once more;
The breach — or the gap that SolidWorks is attempting to close — is product data management, or PDM, for its littlest teams. Up to now, the company has been marching along in two columns: SolidWorks Workgroup PDM (for small teams or groups) and SolidWorks Enterprise PDM (for company-wide adoption). They’re both on-premise (or installed) bundles.
Now, at SolidWorks World 2011, it revealed its new assault plan, dubbed n!Fuze, to be deployed online. The name, as conceived and announced a year ago at SolidWorks World 2010, was SolidWorks Product Data Sharing. It was later renamed SolidWorks Connect. Eventually, it settled on n!Fuze.
Enter n!Fuze, Mini-PDM for SolidWorks
The lowercase n followed by an exclamation point “is a way to say ‘mini,’ ” said Bernard Charles, CEO of SolidWorks’ parent company Dassault Systemes. It also suggests web-enabled architecture. “For example, CATIA n!Share, as PLM express online,” explained Charles. “We want to use n to express that there is something specific to a product — it’s just online.”
The official description, as it appears in SolidWorks Blog, states, “It’s an improvement on traditional approaches for sharing files, such as email and FTP sites, because it integrates with your design tools to facilitate the way you work, uses familiar social networking concepts to engage with others, and avoids costly IT infrastructure and administration. It’s also quick and easy to get started with, simple to use, and accessible from anywhere.”
n!Fuze will most likely be licensed as a subscription, suitable for as small a team as two, with real-time chat and visualization features. It’s currently in closed Beta, so you may not be able to download and try it out yet (unless you’re one of the invited Beta testers). Once installed, it shows up as a tab in your SolidWorks pane, where you normally access your library, Help files, and other ancillary items. This gives you the ability to upload a file to a remote server, create a personal workspace, invite others to share the space with you, and make comments on files. In addition to desktop client, you can also access n!Fuze features from a smart phone or an iPad. (If you imagine a CAD plug-in that resembles an Instant Messenger window with some social functions, linked to a web-based FTP system like Dropbox, you might get some idea how it works.)
For what it’s worth, the product is powered by Dassault Systemes’ ENOVIA V6, but its interface and architecture are targeted at teams and organizations that are much smaller than typical ENOVIA buyers, so you would hardly recognize its ENOVIA roots in n!Fuze. So is it a PLM system for SolidWorks users (just as ENOVIA is the recommended PLM system for CATIA users)?
“I think we can bring new functions to SolidWorks users without scaring them with big acronyms,” observed Charles. “What we have to avoid is offering something too complex to someone who wants something simple.”
A Room with a 3D View
Along with data management, you may begin to see more 3D content creation tools, offered to SolidWorks users. The 3DVIA product line, for developing and producing 3D models that are not as detailed nor complex as mechanical CAD models created in SolidWorks, is essential to Charles’ vision of “lifelike experience.” He envisions a not-so-distant future where e-commerce is fueled by virtual storefronts, completed with interactive 3D replicas of real products (for example, a 3D model of a purse or handbag that can be rotated and opened).
To create lightweight 3D models of real-world products, you can use 3DVIA Shape, a free modeling application. To place your design in a virtual scene where your collaborators can explore or your potential customers may inspect them, you may use Post3D, the latest addition to the 3DVIA portfolio. Post3D is currently a technical preview, so its product managers are still working out the kinks. Unlike Flash animations, Post3D scenes take time to load in your browser window (need to install 3DVIA player to view it).
In its present incarnation, Post3D lets you pick your environment from a preloaded series of rooms, select your avatar from a number of available choices (not customizable currently), then start navigation the scene. Publishable (or uploadable) file formats include SolidWorks, IGES, STEP, COLLADA, and more (essentially, all formats supported by the 3DVIA content portal). Post3D has a build-in physics engine, not as sophisticated as the technology that powers high-end simulation software, but realistic enough to prevent your avatar from crashing through solid walls.
Similar uses of virtual space can be found among members of Second Life, a 3D virtual community created and hosted by Linden Research. The digital world has a thriving market place, complete with its own currency system, market place, and trade activities. But Second Life exists, for the most part, as an alternative to real life, an escape from your first — and primary — life.
Digital replicas and virtual showrooms may become acceptable alternatives where look is the most influential decision-making factor (for example, interior decoration, household appliances, and furniture). But they could be poor substitutes where touch, taste, and other senses are of greater concerns (for example, fabrics, fragrances, and musical instruments).
By now, the engineering rules and methods are well-established for digital manufacturing. The engineering of virtual experience, however, is new territory for engineers. Welcome to the new frontier!
For the record, I’m not in favor of spawning new terms with a forced marriage between a pair of words that aren’t ready to come together. On the other hand, I think terms like advergaming or edutainment legitimately belong in our vocabulary, sine they’re bred in the dual-purpose cultures that straddle advertising and gaming or education and entertainment.
But does a product lifecycle management (PLM) software maker belong in advergaming or edutainment? Bernard Charles, CEO of Dassault Systemes (DS), thinks not only does his company belong there, it’s poised to drive those industries. Having championed the use of 3D mock-ups in nearly every aspect of PLM (DS didn’t do it alone; it had help from competitors like Autodesk, PTC, and Siemens PLM Software), the company now proposes a way to extend the use of those 3D assets beyond manufacturing — to create interactive lifelike experiences in branding, education, and entertainment.
Interactive Experiences via 3DVIA
Charles isn’t suggesting DS will get into the business of creating the next Tomb Raider or Call of Duty. These franchises are the territories of hardcore game publishers and game engines. But the popularity of Facebook apps like FarmVille proves there’s room for growth, not just for entertainment but also for branding. DS’s shortcut into the market is via 3DVIA, a suite of consumer-friendly 3D model and scene authoring tools.
Among the early proof of concepts created using 3DVIA Virtools, a game development and deployment platform, is the multimedia-driven edutainment portal Khufu Revealed, which explains the French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin’s theory of how the great pyramid of Giza might have been built. The project involves the use of DS CATIA (for digital mockup of the pyramid at 1:1 scale), SIMULIA (for determining how and when the beams above the King’s chamber might have cracked), and DELMIA (for simulation the Egyptian laborers’ workflow). But the heavy lifting in the end was actually accomplished in the lightweight (compared to CATIA) 3DVIA, responsible for generating the delivering much of the game-like animation sequences that now hosted at the site.
More recently, DS helped Nestle deliver an interactive bike-racing game in a box, quite literally. If you can get a hold of a Nestle Chocapic cereal box (currently available only in Europe), you can detach the pop-out stereoscopic goggles and the marker to experience a roller coaster ride (see embedded YouTube video below).
“Lifelike experiences — this is what we will be doing for the next 10 years,” declared Charles as he addressed the crowd at the conference.
Window Shopping For the Next Generation
With its 3DVIA portfolio, DS is also keeping an eye on the mobile device market and social networks, evident in the plug-ins it offers for iPhone, iPad, and Facebook app development. In early October, the company added drag-and-drop stereoscopic scene rendering to 3DVIA Studio.
“Including this feature in the free 3DVIA Studio offer is another example of our commitment to empower anyone to build lifelike 3D games and applications,” said Lynne Wilson, CEO, 3DVIA, “The stereoscopic 3D feature opens doors not only for developers, but the average consumer.”
Some retailers like French luxury good merchant EspaceMax have begun experimenting with 3DVIA-driven scenes as a way to lure online shoppers. For a handful of designer handbags and purses, EspaceMax lets online shoppers rotate, inspect, and drag and drop items into virtual models of the products. (To check out this feature, visit EspaceMax here.)
Browser-based 3D app is a quest that has attracted, among others, Google and Autodesk. Whereas the search engine giant is pushing for developers to adopt its free API O3D, Autodesk expects to deliver web-based rendering and visualization apps, to be used in interior decoration, real estate, and architecture sales.
Delivered almost directly to general consumers, these apps were not previously the playground of professional 3D software makers like DS and Autodesk. But the ever-expanding definition of PLM seems to have brought the technology to the consumer’s front door. DS customers now stand ready to cross the threshold, through the display monitor into a buyer’s heart and mind — and wallet.
For an example of an interactive experience, watch the video below demonstrating the Nestle branding campaign.