A local technology gem: 3D Interactive (3DI)

Like many in the local technology community, I was introduced to 3D Interactive Inc. (3DI) at the last DemoCamp. Founded in 2005, 3DI creates “advanced interactive simulation software for design visualization and training systems”. Or put another way, they take the powerful technology behind today’s video games, and apply it to business uses. At DemoCamp, Andrew Czarnietzki showed us 3DI’s training simulation for a Caterpillar Wheel Loader, which is used by the U.S. Army, among others. While he used a mouse and keyboard that night, he said that 3DI had a more realistic simulator back at the office. I knew I had to check it out, and when he heard I was interested, 3DI’s Dave Chan offered to give me a tour of 3DI. I happily accepted, and spent an hour and half there last week.

3D Interactive

The Wheel Loader simulator is pretty cool, and yes I was lucky enough to get to sit in the driver’s seat! The simulator has three pedals, a steering wheel, a joystick, and even a key ignition. I drove the loader around and as I did, Dave explained some of the features, and it became clear that 3DI is pretty passionate about realism. Dave pointed out that when you turn the Wheel Loader on, the gauges on the dashboard all light up and move just as they would in a real machine – most other simulation software just uses a static image for the dashboard. Another cool feature was that static objects become dynamic as you move closer to them. There was a tire on the ground ahead of me that I drove towards. When I was close enough to interact with it, the simulation software turned the tire into something I could pick up – Dave said the change from static to dynamic is important for performance reasons, but it’s done in such a way that you don’t even notice it. The simulator, which took about 5 months to complete, features a number of “missions” such as backfilling, truck loading, etc. And to make it more realistic, you can do them at night or during the day!

Another simulation Dave showed was for a Wheel Tractor-Scraper. Operators are supposed to do a complete inspection of the machine before using it, and the software enables this for training. You can move around the machine, and as you do you check off the items you’re meant to inspect. The simulator will randomly insert problems or issues. The entire simulator was completed in about 7 months, whereas the competition’s timelines were longer than 18 months.

3D Interactive

I also got to see a snubbing unit simulator, built for Nisku-based Snubco, a world-leader in rig assist snubbing units. It’s a first in the world, and will have a significant impact on the market. Snubbing is controlling the pressure to allow the insertion or removal of pipe or tools into an active natural gas or steam well, which is an extremely difficult process. The training for a snubbing unit operator is easily about 3 years, and conventional training methods don’t let you explore the “what if” scenarios. With 3DI’s simulator, which took about 4 months to complete, the training time is greatly reduced, and trainees can go through a number of scenarios with the exact controls they’d have available in the field so that if they encounter an issue, they know what to do. Actually the controls themselves were rather interesting – the panel can be easily localized (apparently China is a big market for this). And in case you’re wondering, yes, there’s a lot of math involved to ensure everything is modeled accurately!

3D Interactive

The training simulators all use the Epic Unreal 3 engine, augmented by 3DI’s other technologies. 3DI also creates design visualizations however, which use their own systems, such as pureLIGHT, a global lighting system. Dave showed me three such visualizations. The first was something they created for the City of Edmonton’s Fire Rescue Services. It’s an interactive model of a house to help train firefighters. With a couple of clicks you can see a completely finished house or just the frame (to learn about how the walls are constructed, etc). You can also simulate a garage with a vehicle in it, or a messy garage, or an empty one! The second visualization was for a new building for BP Energy, designed by Gensler. It was designed to help BP and Gensler see what the interior spaces might look like, with floor plans, furniture, and lighting all simulated. One of the floors in the building is for oil futures trading, and it featured an insane number of desks and computers! The third visualization I saw was very quick – 3DI created an interactive model of the new Art Gallery of Alberta building, which was apparently used for fundraising and other promotional purposes.

BP Trade Floor ModelArt Gallery of Alberta Model

I met around five developers while I was there, all of them busy working on new projects. One developer told me he was working on “Dirt 2.0”. See 3DI doesn’t just model a Wheel Loader, they model entire environments. The new dirt system will enable 3DI simulations to have more realistic dirt, sand, and gravel, that leaves tire tracks as you drive through it or that falls realistically as you start to dump it out. The dirt system is just one of many that 3DI is working on to bring a new level of realism to simulations.

Thanks for the tour Dave! I was really impressed with 3D Interactive after DemoCamp, and the tour only reinforced that feeling. They’re an Edmonton tech company doing amazing things that have an impact around the world.