Feature

Case Study: RealiMation from Datapath

Graphic card technology like AGP and 3DFX enabled Schofield business technology division to produce low cost, complex, virtual reality solutions for the desktop PC

Introduction

The Schofield Lothian group offers construction management services and has clients and employees in over 20 countries worldwide. The company consists of several separate divisions focused on spatial modelling, strategic planning and project management. One department works extensively in creating comprehensive databases for clients. These databases contain the associated paperwork, designs and costing required for any large construction project.

In 1996, the business technology teams at Schofield were charged with creating a financially viable, virtual reality modelling service for these clients. Until recently, the use of virtual reality modelling was often seen as expensive and in need of highly specialist video hardware. Simon Gardiner from the business technology team at Schofield explains that: "At the start of this work, our clients were reluctant to get involved in 3D modelling. There was a perception among many that the technology required a desktop virtual reality solution that just wasn't ready at that time."

Accelerated graphics port

The team set up several development systems running a wide variety of CAD tools. The hardware was based on Pentium 2 technology and AGP graphics cards. The Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) in Pentium II processor systems brings faster, enhanced graphics to the PC. While physically similar to the existing PCI (Peripheral Components Interface) bus, AGP offers improved performance. Application software, especially 3D graphics, exploits these performance increases by allocating and managing memory appropriately. However, software without AGP optimisations also benefits due to the support given to AGP via Windows. With AGP-targeted applications, the 3D models have more texture, more detail and higher screen resolution at increased frame rates.

Many powerful, yet low cost graphic accelerators support AGP. Combined with the widespread adoption of standards like OpenGL, this helped the business technology team achieve its goal. To allow users to view the models they had created, model was encoded each with a RealiMation tool from Datapath. The RealiMation virtual reality system allows any user to walk around the virtual world, in real-time, through a free viewer. This viewer is optimised for Windows Direct Draw, OpenGL and 3DFX, giving it compatibility with every major 3D accelerator running under Windows.

3DFX - Not just for gamers

All personal computers come pre-installed with a 2D graphics board designed primarily for flat applications like Microsoft Word and Excel. To make 3D images in real-time, a computer must make millions of complex mathematical calculations every second. This can make 3D graphics applications slow and jerky as the computer gets caught up rendering 3D images in addition to running the program. 3D accelerators solve this problem; the 3D graphics that were previously rendered by the CPU are now rendered by the 3D accelerator. This significantly increases performance, visual effects and drastically improves the 3D experience.

Breaking cultural barriers

One of Schofield's recent clients has used this system to create presentations and tenders tailored for overseas construction contracts. In one particular case, a planned railway project was altered to assist a Taiwanese client's understanding. This means that a virtual model will have certain key features, like symbols and colour schemes, altered according to which country the presentation is intended for. This helps to break down language barriers and enables some question to be answered visually.

The use of video is also an important aspect. Several of Schofield's development systems have been upgraded with graphics cards that allow the "virtual walk through" of a model to be converted to videotape. This is useful for trade shows, presentations and client work.

Gardiner explains that: "The acceptance of windows and universal standards has made our 3D virtual reality services much more user friendly. The next generation of technology will enhance the quality of the images that we can render in real-time."

Although software like AEC AutoCAD and Realimation plays a big part in this low cost virtual reality solution, graphics card technology like AGP and 3DFX have allowed Schofield's business technology division to produce complex, virtual reality solutions for the desktop PC.

Will Garside

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This was first published in July 1999

 

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