Palm Springs, CA —The problem with design engineering today is that information flows in a one-way street from product design to manufacturing, according to Microsoft President and CEO Steve Ballmer.
Although designers have powerful software tools such as PDM, FEA, and CAD, there are "gaps between the apps" when they try to communicate with process and manufacturing programs, he said in an address at the CATIA Operators Exchange (COE) conference here in April.
Ballmer's solution is to create a "digital feedback loop" through a seamless interface (a "digital dashboard") between the desktop and web, taking advantage of the tremendous rise in cheap processing power compared to computers of a decade ago. That interface will allow memory-intensive programs—including CATIA and Windows—to be moved off the desktop to web-based "middleware."
He says the six results of this revolution in knowledge management will be: a paperless office, the retention of corporate memory, fewer and better meetings, coordinated communication, digital feedback loops, and a customizable computing experience.
Ballmer's vision of making future meetings more efficient is "meetings without walls." The concept has two levels, he says: asynchronous collaboration—where people share diagrams via e-mail, hold on-line discussions from remote locations, and are updated through subscription and notification; and real-time collaboration, including instant messaging, web-based white boards, shared applications, and online broadcasts.
He showed demonstrations of two nascent Microsoft technologies intended to enable this vision:
"View-dependent progressive mesh" is a way to show rich graphics with minimum processing power. In Ballmer's example of a flight-simulation trip over the Grand Canyon, the landscape was composed of 17 million triangles, but the details were only rendered when the pilot looked in a certain direction. As soon as he looked away, the landscape faded to its roughest resolution.
"Virtual conferencing" is an animated, web rendition of a real-time meeting, attended via conference call by people in remote locations. Each person is previously photographed from a half-dozen angles, and the computer interpolates facial expressions onto a virtual avatar, which appears to speak or listen in the animated virtual conference room.
As an example, the Microsoft technician running the demo stretched Ballmer's avatar face into grins and frowns. But the real Ballmer stayed focused on his vision of a digital feedback loop...and possibly the future of web-based engineering.
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