What do you think is the least-pleasant task within the field of industrial design? Client contact? Dealing with marketers? Rejiggering tolerances? For your correspondent, it was always having to take 3D models and painstakingly turn those into numbers and precise radii with ship's curves and calipers.
That may soon change. The T'nD project is an effort by a team of EU researchers to let designers physically sculpt material, with tactile feedback, and have every iota of the surface you're working recorded in CAD.
The key to the T'nD project is the use of 'haptic' technology which allows a user to feel as well as see a virtual object generated by a computer. A robotic arm transmits forces to the hand of a user, to simulate resistance to movement and can give the sensation of a solid object. To date, haptic devices have only been successful in simulating "point" contact with a virtual object. This is fine for simulating an aircraft joystick or even a surgical instrument, but until now it has not been practicable to simulate extended contact over a surface. To get around this, T'nD uses two coupled haptic devices...to simulate the two ends of a sculpting tool.
Two tools have been devised, a scraper, for removing material from a model, and a sandpaper, for smoothing and exploring the surface. Users start with a block of virtual clay, for example, and use the tools to cut and shape it with their hands. They can watch the process on a computer monitor and, most importantly, feel the sensation of the tool cutting and smoothing the clay. Psychologists from the partner Universite Aix-Marseille have been closely involved in studying how modellers use tools in this way.
Pininfarina, Alessi, and a Spanish company named Eiger are all on-board. More information on the technology and the project are here.