August 28, 2008 The use of synthesised Virtual Reality to train people using frightfully expensive machinery where mistakes are not an option was pioneered by the aviation industry with flight simulators and the technology found application in the automotive industry to refine the development of human-machine interfaces and is beginning to be applied to all manner of high value pursuits. Undoubtedly, the use of a CAVE (Computer Aided Virtual Environment) in the design of products and carefully-crafted user environments is certainly the way of the future for all industries once the enormous expense can be justified, and now German premium household appliance designer Miele has introduced the technology into its design process, becoming the first company in the sector to avail itself of the technology.

CAVE technology lets products appear in a virtual world before they exist in reality, thus enabling a number of different doctrines and technologies to be integrated much faster and the process of development and innovation accelerated in speed and quality. Product developers, designers and engineers can see the end result before it is crafted with real atoms, enabling them to discuss and refine the end result without much effort and cost. The speed gained by avoiding errors in communication between the design modalities enables more experimention in a shorter time-frame and more importantly, a better end result.

Miele’s stated philosophy is to manufacture the highest-quality domestic appliances and commercial equipment in the world and to be seen by markets worldwide as providing an absolutely top-class household product. In the words of its founding fathers, Carl Miele and Reinhard Zinkann, "Success is only possible in the long term if one is totally and utterly convinced of the quality of one's products." Therefore, continuous innovation is the foundation of our business success. Given Miele’s stated aims, the implementation of CAVE into its design process will safeguard its good reputation whilst it innovatives faster.

The CAVE name masks a highly developed projection technology, creating a three-dimensional virtual reality to interact with. The user looks at the high-resolution projection with glasses provided with polarisation filters, whereby two images are created for each eye with a rotated polarisation from slightly different perspectives. The overall dimensional impression created by the combined partial images to impart the feeling of a natural, perfectly dimensioned environment, albeit one which consists only of data.

The user’s head movements and changes of position are registered by a camera system, so that the user is not confined to a fixed location and can navigate through this virtual environment as they would if it was real. By means of a cluster of nine high-performance processors, this allows for real time adjustment of the image detail and the image perspective to the user’s position. The 6.7 million pixels of the images are recalculated up to 30 times per second. Products and processes not yet existing in reality can thus be visualised, complex situations can be experienced intuitively and better comprehended. All viewers see the same result. The internals of complex products and components can be seen from within (without real-world atoms to get in the way, you can move through walls and component outers, evaluating and modifying to accelerate the development process, release more creative potential and obtain the required result.

“The number of expensive, physical models and prototypes can be radically reduced by CAVE, and this ultimately saves a lot of time and money”, says Andreas Enslin, Miele’s senior designer. “Furthermore, the development process is significantly accelerated. After all, as designers, we are working in 3-D anyway. The new technology enables us to immediately discuss the different proposals and ideas with our colleagues from Engineering or Marketing and try things out.”

The Miele CAVE system cost the company around 1.6 million Euros and uses eight high-resolution cinema projectors with a luminance of approx. 7,000 ANSI lumen for each project perspective, polarised semi-images from behind to a huge, 15 metre projection screen of black glass. The screen is split into three sections and suspended at an angle of 120 degrees so that no distortion results by the deformation of the glass due to its own weight. Four head tracking cameras keep track of the viewer’s movements and transmit this information to a processor cluster of nine work stations, which then recalculates all 6.7 million pixels 30 times a second, constantly adjusting it to the user’s movements. The impression of a real environment or product results from the human brain putting the separate images created by the cluster back together again, complete with all reflections and shadows for each eye, to create an apparently real perspective.

While the product development and design cycle has so far been a long sequence of design decisions and corrective actions, a whole package of decisions can now be processed efficiently says Enslin: “CAVE creates a quite different form of communication and cooperation. Marketers, designers and engineers can now deal with one issue simultaneously. Regardless of what comes up with me as a designer or engineer, I am able to immediately try it and see if it works. As everyone is seeing the same thing, those people who are not directly involved in the process of development and construction can also immediately see the consequences and effects of decisions.“

This is accomplished to the extent that the Miele devices in the future will also be tested for their serviceability: You can take, for example, a virtual tool and see whether e.g. the required screws can be accessed. Defects can be correspondingly corrected directly at the computer.

The speed gained is also expected to increase the willingness to experiment, Miele’s senior designer believes. “In this respect, our innovative strength will also increase. It has become much easier to try out something crazy in between.” Basically, of course, the standard remains that the Miele design has to express the premium character of the products. Andreas Enslin: “Our good reputation is essentially determined by our design. This has always been so and will remain this way. We are simply improving now.”

Miele’s CAVE development enviroment was commissioned in 7 May this year.

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