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December 5, 2016

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Design industry undergoes technology makeover

WEISEN Chen, a 25-year veteran in architecture and interior design, is happy to demonstrate the features of design software Vidahouse to furniture vendors, shopping mall operators, the media and almost anyone who walks into his office in Shanghai.

The founder and president of startup company Vidahouse shows how his “magic” can to turn two-dimensional designs on paper into virtual 3D space.

“It creates a new working model and even an ecosystem for designers in China,” said Chen, who wants the software to connect designers, clients and suppliers through technologies like virtual reality and data analysis.

Indeed, new technologies that also include 3D printing and cloud computing are breathing fresh air into the design sector, relieving the tedium of repeated routines to allow practitioners more time for innovation. The design process is becoming more affordable and more efficient.

Pen and paper are no longer the only tools of the trade. Computers, smartphones, 3D printers and virtual and augmented reality glasses are transforming the way work is done. The products produced in this innovative new era include recyclable paper bike helmets and a prototype aircraft based on flying fish.

Vidahouse software is available across Mac, PCs and smartphones. Designers can tap it to create unique styles and furniture pictures. Experienced designers can learn how to use the software within several hours.

More importantly, clients without such advanced skills can see effects immediately and add their input by communicating with designers through mobile applications, even if they are in different cities.

“The majority Chinese designers have been functioning as craftsmen, not artists, because their time is consumed by so much duplicative work,” said Chen. “This system helps them focus on ideas.”

Furniture and real estate firms have welcomed the new technologies.

Red Star Macalline, one of top interior decorating stores in China, is in negotiations with Vidahouse to put bar codes on furniture in its shops. That will link them to Vidahouse virtual rooms by handset scanning.

China offers great market potential for virtual reality device makers, smartphone vendors and content providers. The market is forecast to be valued at 55 billion yuan (US$8.3 billion) by 2020, a 36-fold jump from 2014, according to research firm iResearch.

Virtual reality is one of the hottest technologies in China. It is being adopted by giants in the design sector, including virtual reality device vendor HTC and top design software firm Adobe.

Last month, HTC and the municipal government of Shenzhen in southern China announced the establishment of a 10 billion yuan fund for virtual reality, mainly covering medical, military, engineering, design and manufacturing sectors.

Adobe, one of the world’s biggest creative software and service providers, included virtual reality video editing and production in its latest Adobe Creative Cloud, officially released in China last month.

Adobe’s new collection includes 15 desktop and mobile tools, including Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Premiere, with new features that also include artificial intelligence in picture editing.

It offers designers the “best digital experience across all devices,” Adobe said in Shanghai.

Li Jun, a Shanghai-based professional designer, noticed the change immediately after upgrading.

“The Photoshop software has been optimized greatly on opening and processing files and pictures,” said Li, who works with Adobe’s Photoshop.

Li’s company Rimagine, a Shanghai-based creative production studio, has a client list that includes 3M, Bosch, Siemens and some of China’s top consumer electronic brands.

Rimagine also uses 3D printers in its Kunshan studio to help designers and clients optimize the work process.

Easier-to-use innovations in technology and software for desktop 3D printers are making them more attractive in China, especially in the design and education sectors, said MakerBot, one of the world’s top desktop 3D printer vendors.

Compared with industrial 3D printers, desktop machines are cheaper and more portable.

MakerBot, which has sold “a few thousand” 3D printers in China, launched its new product range last month. New 3D printers allowed designers to experiment with new methods, like remote control by smartphones and repeated testing and data analysis at a reasonable cost, said Jonathan Jaglom, MakerBot’s chief executive.

Shanghai Tongji University is researching prototype aircrafts with bionics technology, by observing butterflies and flying fish. Researchers there are using MakerBot 3D printers to create models for testing.

“My students and I want do more for design and research for the next-generation of China-developed planes,” said Shen Haijun, professor in the School of Aerospace Engineering and Applied Mechanics at Tongji. “The 3D printers are powerful tools in achieving our dreams.”

Isis Shiffer, a US-based industrial designer, won the 2016 James Dyson Award with her EcoHelmet, a folding, recyclable helmet for bike share programs. Made of waterproof paper in a honeycomb pattern, EcoHelmet allows cyclists to ride more safely and more easily. The price of the EcoHelmet, still in its prototype stages, is expected to drop to US$5, making it affordable for major bike-sharing sites.

During the design process, Shiffer used data analysis and rapid modeling technologies to test waterproofing and durability of paper-made models.

She said design is now a “digitalized and data analysis” process that allows her and other designers to solve problems in real time.

Vidahouse said it is working to adapt artificial intelligence with data analysis, recommending design styles based on purchasing behavior, geography and unique client demands.

Designers really need to explore “fresh ideas,” and the new technologies give them the time to do that, said Vidahouse’s Chen.


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