Think about the engine in your car for a moment. The same one you don’t give a moment’s thought to when you turn the key or press the start button. Quite why it is so complex is worth a little thought.
For if engineering can be dived into elegant and inelegant solutions, the internal combustion engine is among the most inelegant. Half of its systems are there just to make sure the thing doesn’t self-destruct. It’s a heat engine, so there’s a complex plumbing chain of water pumps and radiators to keep it cool. It’s a reciprocating engine – the pistons go up and down even though the wheels need to go round and round – that demands a big heavy crankcase with big heavy bearings that won’t shake apart.
The engine in your car doesn’t even produce enough torque to move your car unless it’s turning over pretty quickly. So there are gearboxes and clutches and flywheels – all to make sure you set off nice and gently and not through your neighbour’s hedge.
That’s not to say the modern internal combustion engine isn’t a modern technological wonder, it is. But it’s not an elegant one. And that’s actually the interesting thing about electric cars – they are an elegant engineering solution. So too are near-ambient temperature RGB Laser projection, DLP chips and Xenon illumination; in all these examples system complexity is designed out from the start, not overcome by adding complexity to cover up inherent shortcomings.
At the large VR laboratory at ZAL, Hamburg’s Center of Applied Aeronautical Research, they search for elegant engineering solutions on a daily basis. As the world’s third-largest civil aviation research site, the solutions they find simply have to be elegant, because of the weight, safety and economic constraints aeronautic engineering automatically imposes. If they can find a graceful solution, they’ve usually found a safer solution, and a more economic one too.
In their search for these they’ve recently turned to VR, and a 4K, 3D, powerwall, planned and installed by Christie partners Viscon GmbH. Designed so objects can be shown interactively using tracking, presenters can present while additional participants can dive into the virtual world using active shutter glasses.
The 6-metre-wide and 3.18-metre-high rear projection screen means there is plenty of space to explore large objects in their original dimensions; doing away with costly models aviation can demand. But if the devil is in the detail, it’s also where the genius of the system can be found. The wall uses a single a Christie Mirage 304K active stereo projector. It’s the only projector that can reproduce native 4K content in 3D with a refresh rate of 120 Hz, thanks to TruLife electronics. (TruLife once again showing that software engineering benefits from elegant solutions just as much as mechanical engineering does).
All this means users can zoom tightly into the smallest details and examine what makes them tick. Or fails to make them tick. It means they can refine out the poorly thought through and build in reliability and simplicity. Because its virtual there’s no need to make new models, and because this is a collaborative environment every opinion can be aired and tested.
Eric Küpper, Managing Director at Viscon, explains why the Christie Mirage was so well suited to this: ‘We decided to use the Christie Mirage 304K because it is an extremely high-performance, latest-generation 4K projector and, on top of that, features a modular lamp system. This makes it fail-safe, which is not the case for single-lamp devices.’
Guido Grun, ZAL GmbH’s own VR expert, adding ‘Another reason for using the Christie digital projector and an active 3D system was the simple fact that we only need to have one projector here, and still don’t have to make sacrifices in terms of light output or native 4K resolution.’
As the installation is designed as a cluster system, partners in the computer network have concurrent access to shared storage and are connected with the server through an LWL switch, each partner using their own system for data calculation. ‘We use TechViz software, which accesses the system’s video memory and distributes the data to two clients,’ says Grun. ‘Each client calculates one image, and the overall frame rate is 120 images per second, meaning sixty images are shown to the left eye and sixty images are shown to the right.’
It’s an elegant solution, and one that is rapidly turning VR at ZA into a tool for daily use rather than an exotic route only to be taken when every other avenue has failed.
And that’s the thing about elegant engineering. It relies on a precise understanding of how you want each element in your scheme to behave, and finding the simplest way of achieving this. The earlier that’s uncovered in the design process, the more elegant things will be. It may not always get you to market first (there’s a good reason the term ‘quick and dirty’ was invented), but the market will always thank you in the end.