From Viewmaster to virtual reality

Today, engineering professor Sankar Jayaram laughs about that first presentation, but in 1994 he was just a new faculty member with a bold idea for using virtual reality to complete ergonomic studies in vehicle manufacturing. He discussed his idea with a representative of PACCAR, a multinational corporation known primarily as a manufacturer of heavy-duty trucks, including the Kenworth and Peterbilt brands.

“We did not have any virtual reality hardware, so we did what engineers always do — we used duct tape,” Jayaram explained with a smile. “We took one of those old Viewmaster 3-D slide viewers and cut off the back, then duct-taped it onto a computer screen. It worked.”

He was invited to make a presentation at PACCAR’s technical center in Mt. Vernon, near Seattle. Based on that demonstration, PACCAR provided support for two graduate students to create a more realistic proof of concept.

That was the genesis of the Virtual Reality Computer Integrated Manufacturing (VRCIM) Laboratory, co-directed by Sankar and his wife, associate professor Uma Jayaram.

3-D environment
For those wondering what VRCIM does and what the field of virtual reality includes, Sankar has a ready answer.

“Virtual reality is the next generation of computer graphics,” he explained. “Now, to interact with a computer, people watch a 2-D, or two dimensional, screen and manipulate it with a mouse. Virtual reality is the next stage, a 3-D environment where the interaction between people and computer is more realistic, using movement of the hands and fingers.”

Sankar must have continued to successfully explain and demonstrate the applicability of virtual reality to the manufacturing process because, beginning with that first presentation in 1994, the relationship with PACCAR has flourished. The corporation has provided more research funding. The corporation’s foundation has provided donations to purchase modern technological tools for classroom instruction. And corporate representatives serve on a variety of WSU advisory boards.

Over the last 12 years, thanks to PACCAR and many other partnering corporations and agencies, the lab has filled with the latest in virtual reality software and equipment. Between a half-dozen and a dozen graduate students work on VRCIM projects every year. And the Jayarams have become known around the world as experts in the field.

Improving manufacturing
PACCAR and other partners fund these projects since the processes and equipment developed in the lab improve their manufacturing and design work. And Sankar sees a similar benefit for his teaching and his students.

“This interaction is vital to the overall quality of my teaching. Working with PACCAR and the others provides us with new technology to use in the classroom. I also interact with real engineers through these projects, which brings real world experience into my teaching so all my students have a better understanding of real engineering issues.

Graduate advantage
“For our graduate students, this really improves their education,” said Sankar. “Our students have an opportunity to work on real-world projects with real engineers. Their work and their experience have direct applications out of the university. That provides better opportunities for employment, as well as direct support for their education.”

When asked for an example of a student who benefited from the PACCAR partnership, Sankar cited Craig Palmer, who earned his M.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 2000. He is an engineer leading virtual reality, virtual prototyping and ergonomics simulation technology development at the PACCAR Technical Center.

“Craig worked with PACCAR on their projects here, and when they opened their own virtual reality lab, he was hired to run it,” Sankar noted.

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