3-D Design Software Makes Computer Objects "Real"
Psychologists hope to use virtual environments, such as this virtual city, to treat acrophobia and other phobias.
Credit: Computer image courtesy of SDSC
While 3-D computer design software has been available
for years, nothing can replace being able to touch an object, to turn
it in your hands and feel the shape.
"Designers are used to looking at computer graphics, but eventually they want
something to hold and maybe test out," says Mike Bailey, senior staff scientist
at the NSF-supported San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC).
The technology for rapid prototyping--to quickly produce a solid from a computer
design--is available, but out of reach of many. Design and manufacture engineers
frequently use such machinery, but many other researchers do not have access
to it. But now NSF has recently funded "rapid prototyping" machinery at the SDSC.
The San Diego Supercomputer Center was established in 1986 to push the limits
of high performance computing hardware and software; and bring together members
of the academic, industrial and government communities to collaborate on scientific
and engineering research and education with the aid of high-performance computational
and visualization tools.
SDSC has long provided scientists the service of color slides and graphic representations
of their data. A user hooked into SDSC via the Internet can print a slide and
receive it in the mail a short time later. Now, that same service will be provided
with mechanical parts.
The trick is not the machinery, which is available. The difficulty is in making
computer commands coming in over the Internet readable by a machine. There also
must be a program to spot errors -- to check on whether a given design "makes
sense." A big part of the project is to develop the computational geometry algorithms
that allow such flaws to be detected and, in many cases, automatically fixed.
LOM--Laminated Object Manufacturing--builds a 3-D model one layer at a time,
using a material that looks like the paper in a butcher's shop--paper coated
with polyethylene. The object is built up one tiny layer at a time and the paper
is heated, sealing it to previous layers. The resulting model looks and feels
like wood, and can be sanded, stained, or painted. "As 'up' as I am about computer
modeling, there is definitely a need to have something you can feel in your hands
to better understand its geometry," says Bailey. By making the machinery widely
available through the Internet, Bailey hopes its use will expand beyond traditional
design and engineering roles.
For instance, chemist could use models to explore docking sites where two molecules "lock" together
and interact. Earth scientist could see and feel geological features they have
mapped electronically. Surgeons could form prostheses before making a single
incision. Obstetricians could make models of fetuses -- and be able to more easily
spot birth defects than when reading an ultrasound.
"Traditionally, these people don't have access to these machines," Bailey says. "We
can give them something they might have thought was out of reach."