Tuesday, January 23, 2001
CO is a new software tool for engineering collaboration, launched this week
by Oculus Technologies Co. (Boston, MA; www.oculustech.com). Sure, "collaboration"
is the biggest buzzword in engineering software right now, claiming to save time
and money by allowing engineers in different places and times to work together.
But Oculus says it has learned from others' mistakes.
For starters, CO is a peer-to-peer tool, so it operates without routing data
through a central server, instead processing the information on each user's
machine. It works something like other well-known "p2p" file-trading
applications such as Napster, Groove, and Gnutella, but it is designed to handle
the large file sizes of engineering files and CAD models.
Data storage is a problem that many IT departments are finding with Napster,
since students collecting digital song files must trade entire copies of songs,
rapidly filling up hard drives. The problem could be even more intense with
gigabyte-hogging CAD files. But CO gets around this problem by sharing only a
"black box" of each model, adding detail only to the segment of the assembly
that a particular user needs to see.
For instance, to collaborate on a complex Excel spreadsheet, it would share
just the grid of numbers, not the equations behind them. And then it would send
changes as small as a single cell. A car in CO might look like a "black box"
with explicit wheels, or look like a "black box" with explicit steering and
suspension, depending on who's looking at it.
This approach helps solve one of the main reasons many users are reluctant to
try collaborative software- perceived low security-since the original,
intelligent CAD model always remains on its creator's machine. And even if
someone opened an encoded CO message, they would only see the single part that
had changed...not the entire assembly.
This "granular" style of sharing data also addresses another complaint about
collaboration-that users must have high-powered Internet connections. Since it
shares just tiny packets of data, CO is convenient for those users who are
connected to the Internet over low-capacity dial-up wires, such as hotel phone
Also, CO is not meant to replace current engineering software tools, but to
enhance them, enabling them to collaborate, says Christopher J. Williams,
Oculus' president and CEO. And although CO is vendor-neutral, it is not a
universal CAD translator, but rather links directly to the data source, so all
collaborators don't need to own the same CAD application. This allows users the
maximum freedom to use the software applications that work best for their
"Collaboration is an entry point, not an end goal," says Williams. "The goal
should be getting your product out the door."
In person, CO appears to be a series of messages on a browser screen. It can
run as a second window on your machine, or behind the scenes.