CAD in Virtual Reality

Updated Oct 4, 2023

Over the course of half a century, CAD has changed dramatically. While early forms of CAD allowed for only limited 2D drafting, today’s software is far more complex. Users can now work in 3D, and attach vast amounts of data to elements within their design. Thanks to this, engineers and designers can gain a clearer understanding of how their projects will look and behave when finished.

Nonetheless, CAD is still evolving. The realism of designs is limited by the display that CAD software uses: when you’re using a 2D screen to display a 3D design, you can’t get a truly accurate depiction of it in the real world. How do you solve this problem? Bring designs into a virtual world. We’re already seeing the first developments of CAD in virtual reality and augmented reality. In this article, we’ll explore these developments, and look ahead at what’s to come.

History of virtual reality

Some of the earliest forms of virtual reality came into being in the 1950s, such as Morton Heilig’s Sensorama machine. However, most of these early prototypes relied on showing simple videos. The first machine to use computer-generated graphics arrived in 1968: the pioneering Sword of Damocles. The translucent device overlaid graphics onto the physical world, making this an ancestor of both VR and AR. Interestingly, it was the brainchild of Ivan Sutherland, who was also a key figure in the history of CAD.

Subsequent developments included the creation of the Aspen Movie Map in 1978 (think of it as the grandfather to today’s Google Street View). Meanwhile, Jason Lanier founded VR company VPL Research in 1985, coining the term “virtual reality” in 1987. However, the first VR boom came in the 1990s. Largely focused on the gaming industry, VR was unable to compete with other consoles, and fell out of public view by the decade’s end.

VR rises again

The story of VR began anew in the 2010s. A key moment came when Palmer Luckey, dissatisfied by even the most cutting-edge VR technology available, decided to create his own system. The result was the Oculus Rift, a device which reignited public interest in virtual reality. By the time it saw public release in 2016, the technology had advanced even further. The Rift allowed for a truly immersive experience—one which allows your brain to experience VR as it experiences the real world. Images fill the visual field without smearing—and you can even move around within the virtual world, rather than just looking around.

Oculus kicked off a wave of interest in VR, and a slew of new devices appeared in subsequent years. The HTC ViveSamsung Gear VRPlayStation VR and Google Daydream devices showed the desire for major tech players to get involved in the industry. Meanwhile, Google also released Cardboard, a low-cost head mount that enables users to use smartphones as VR devices. After years in the shadows, VR was firmly back on the agenda.

What does VR mean for CAD?

In the past, the best-known applications of virtual reality systems have been in gaming and entertainment. However, the technology is now coming into its own in the fields of engineering and design. The advantages of using VR for CAD are clear. First, VR enables users to view their projects in 3D. It also enables them to visualize how their design will appear at scale when compared to other virtual objects.

However, VR isn’t about simply upgrading our existing capabilities, but adding new ones that would otherwise be unthinkable. Imagine walking through a virtual version of a building you’re designing, or holding a virtual product in your hands. VR makes it possible. As such, designs become more “real” in virtual reality. Users can even break apart their virtual models into individual pieces—something which would be impossible in real life.

The ability to create realistic virtual prototypes and models reduces the need for prototyping, helping to reduce the cost of production. In turn, clients no longer need to wait for a physical model to be produced before they can see—and thus approve—a design. There is therefore huge potential for VR in CAD for product design, architecture, and engineering, amongst a range of other fields.

New ways to create

Aside from simply viewing designs, virtual reality is changing how we create things in CAD. We recently featured one example of this on our blog: MakeVR. In this virtual reality-based software, users create designs in a virtual space, rather than on a screen. Within this space, users can simply pull, push, and stretch various objects. This helps them create three-dimensional objects in front of their eyes, in real time. This reduces the learning curve traditionally associated with CAD software, and makes design a much more tactile experience.

They’re far from the only company trying to get a piece of the VR action. We’ve also reported on an app from London-based Gravity Sketch. Meanwhile, CAD behemoth Autodesk have long shown interest in VR, which was a major topic at their recent Autodesk University London event on “The Future of Making Things”.

Looking ahead

While VR is already making inroads into CAD, there are even more exciting developments ahead. It’s hoped that VR tools could, for example, allow engineers to conduct analysis on structures. Meanwhile, some hope that VR will alter the way that consumers relate to products—shifting the emphasis from storytelling to “story living”, and a greater degree of interactivity.

VR isn’t the only exciting development, however. Related developments include augmented reality, which comes even closer to bringing CAD objects into the real world. Meanwhile, some, such as Microsoft’s Hololens, have attempted to bridge the gap between the real and virtual worlds with mixed reality. The possibilities are vast and exciting—we’ll be sure to keep an eye on this in our news section in the months and years to come.

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