British grip on virtual reality slashes design costs

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The Independent Online
NEXT Tuesday, Bob Stone will take a team of Sainsbury executives on a tour of a store they haven't built yet. He will be able to escort them along its aisles, point out product placement, pick up items, comment on the lighting and show them how the store looks from the checkouts. And, if they don't like something, it can be changed by pressing a few buttons.

The secret is virtual reality, a technology British companies are quickly learning to use to cut costs and time in engineering design. Professor Stone, 37, is head of the National Centre for Virtual Environments, a joint venture between Intelligent Systems Solutions and Salford University, near Manchester.

"Britain has actually benefited from lagging behind the US," he says. "The hype there couldn't match the products that were available, and the industry there has taken a step backwards."

Virtual reality (VR) models physical objects in a computer's memory, which can then be viewed either on a screen or using a headset containing two tiny televisions to give a three-dimensional effect. Its use by British companies is set to take off: a survey of 100 manufacturing sites in the UK, published by IBM earlier this month, found that only 5 per cent were already using VR but 40 per cent expected to be doing so within five years. Britain has three quoted VR companies - Division, based at Almondsbury near Bristol, Superscape of Hook, Hampshire, and Virtuality of Leicester - with a combined capitalisation of pounds 106m. In the United States, there are none.

The National Centre, set up in May, has pounds 2m worth of projects. Besides Sainsbury, there are blue-chip names such as ICI, Rolls-Royce aero-engines, VSEL, Bell Northern Research, and three of the privatised water companies (Thames, Welsh and South West). Also busy are British Nuclear Fuels, UK Nirex, and the Co-operative retailing chain.

Although the centre is not profitable, it covers its operational costs and more customers are knocking on the door.

It is easy to see why. According to IBM, up to 45 per cent of a product's development costs can derive from design changes after production. "Every project we do aims to show the customer how we can give them direct cost savings, or else a faster turn-round in the design process and hence cost- savings," says Andrew Connell, 25, a Salford University graduate who designs virtual worlds for customers and acts as the centre's business director.

For ICI, the centre built a virtual version of an existing chemical plant so accurately that staff viewing it could identify buildings on the horizon. The ICI model is best viewed on a headset. By wearing a glove incorporating pressure sensors, the user acquires a "virtual hand" which can be used to move valves around on pipes (to check accessibility), trace pipes (the entire length of which turn bright yellow on being "touched") and even check a database of the valves' maintenance schedules.

For Sainsbury, a virtual supermarket is too good a chance to miss. It can be used to model unbuilt ones, but in time might even be available to customers at home - they would be able to enter the "shop" and make their choices without leaving the sofa. Rolls-Royce, when considering design updates of its aircraft engines, used to make wooden models of new components and then try to physically fit them in the crowded space of the pipes and valves. Now, the entire engine can be held in a computer's memory.

Professor Stone is proud of a technology that only two years ago he feared would be overwhelmed by the hype. "When we show customers something, there are no neon lights, no dry ice, no girls in Lycra dancing around, no games. It's real applications."

A problem in publicising his service is that most of his clients want to keep their projects secret: "A lot of companies want to keep their projects exclusive because they see it offering a competitive advantage."