STEX25 Startup:
October 3, 2018 - February 1, 2020

Virtual reality at every engineer’s fingertips

Cloud service and inexpensive headsets bring VR to the desktop for everyday work and global collaborations.

By: Eric Bender

For engineers working on immensely complex projects such as jet engines or cars, the potential payoffs of virtual reality (VR) are strikingly obvious. VR workspaces have been employed for many years to allow engineering teams explore and troubleshoot their creations along with other key experts in their organizations or partner firms.

To date, this approach has required physically gathering all these professionals in extremely expensive and difficult-to-operate VR rooms. But IQ3Connect, an MIT Startup Exchange STEX25 company, now offers a desktop alternative.

“Our technology powers a high-performance immersive 3D workspace that companies can use for product engineering and training,” says Ali Merchant, co-founder and CEO of the Woburn, Mass. firm. “Instead of using a 2D collaboration tool like PowerPoint or WebEx, you can simply enter a 3D space along with other members of your global team, with the click of a button, without leaving your desktop.”

The IQ3Connect platform is delivered via private or public cloud and is designed to work on any engineering-strength desktop and VR headset. “Going forward, these collaborative VR workspaces will come to every engineer’s desktop,” Merchant predicts.

Sharing the engineering workspace

Merchant earned his doctorate in aeronautical and aerospace engineering at MIT, where his research focused on designing and analyzing complex turbomachinery components used in aircraft engines.

“About two years ago when low-cost cost virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift started coming on the market, we saw an opportunity to take that technology platform, developed at MIT over 10-plus years of research, and use it as a foundation to build the IQ3 collaboration platform,” he says.

Working with Yunus Shah, who has held leadership roles at the well-established simulation software firm ANSYS, Merchant focused his startup on the goal of allowing engineers at their desktops to engage via VR with their exact 3D designs.

One dramatic benefit of the VR environment is the ability to understand designs at the same scale seen in the real world. “For example, if you look at an engine on your laptop screen you really can't tell how big it is,” he says. “But in a VR system you can see it at its actual scale. You can actually walk into the nacelle of an engine and then go in between the blades and understand the complexity in a way that is not possible on any 2D screen. That capability completely transforms the way engineers can work and collaborate.”

IQ3 brings this environment to teams; colleagues invited from anywhere on the globe can enter a VR meeting just as they would a normal web conference. “I can work directly on the 3D geometry and engage with my team members, identify problems, make changes to the design, mark it up and essentially complete a design review,” Merchant says. “I can do that much more efficiently and quickly in a VR space, and reduce the number of errors that might occur with conventional 2D tools.”

Instead of using a 2D collaboration tool like PowerPoint or WebEx, you can simply enter a 3D space along with other members of your global team, with the click of a button, without leaving your desktop.

“Everyone can freely look at the 3D geometry and be completely free to move around in the 3D space, just like you would if you were in a physical factory floor walking around a product,” he adds. “You can work in parallel in this 3D space and then bring everybody together in a meeting. It's a much more productive environment.”

Extending the virtual team

Engineering collaborations can grow as needed in this shared VR space, Merchant emphasizes.

“Typically in a larger product design project, a cross-functional team has to validate the initial prototype design and raise aspects of that design, all the way from the way the parts fit together to how they can be accessed and how they can be manufactured,” he says. “All these questions have to be answered by different teams.”

The IQ3 platform can bring all these teams together in an immersive real-time 3D environment, so that they can work much more efficiently and quickly to resolve problems. “If you can improve the quality of your engineering and solve these problems early in the design process, you can save a lot of time and money,” Merchant points out.

These extended teams can reach well outside the organization itself, incorporating critical suppliers as well. “If communication barriers with suppliers can be reduced, then there's a huge cost savings on both sides,” he says.

Easing adoption

Bringing transformative tools such as VR into an organization is always a challenge, and IQ3 aims to ease the transformation in several ways.

One major ingredient is to deliver high-performance software that works agnostically with hardware and software that is standard in the engineering world.

“We can work with almost any hardware that's out there, so you can use a mix of devices that best suits your company's requirements,” he says. Even engineers who lack VR equipment altogether can still participate in the IQ3 workspace via browser.

Adhering to the latest web standards for delivering VR “gives us a huge advantage over other VR software,” he says. “Working through a browser gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of how IQ3 can be used within an organization. And if you need to bring your customers or suppliers into an IQ3 meeting, all they need is a browser and a headset, and our software does not require any installation.”

The IQ3 platform software also enforces security for the critical engineering data sets brought into the VR sessions, which remain stored in the cloud.

Perhaps most importantly, the company focuses on providing bottom-line benefits for customers. “In our initial meetings with companies, people got very excited,” Merchant recalls. “There was an initial Wow factor, which died off. Then the questions were, what’s the business case and where’s the return on investment?”

“We’ve been fortunate to develop relationships with customers, really understand their business needs and problems, and shape our technology to actually solve those engineering problems,” he says.

In one automotive company, for instance, the previous use of physical prototypes to assess certain problems with parts sometimes resulted in costly errors. “They were able to use IQ3 to solve such problems upfront before they commit to manufacturing, and they're able to do this in a collaborative space,” he says. “They can bring the relevant engineers or even their suppliers and their customers to engage to solve the problem.”

IQ3 is also finding applications in very different engineering fields. One is biomedical engineering, where drug developers can use VR to “walk around” biological molecules. Another is in offshore petroleum. The company has a partnership with 3D at Depth, which uses lidar (surveying based on laser pulses) to map out undersea oil drilling structures. 3D at Depth’s customers can use the IQ3 platform to collaboratively assess the condition of their undersea equipment, which would be a daunting task without combining 3D lidar data with VR, Merchant says.

Sometimes, IQ3 also addresses another type of business need that has nothing immediate to do with product engineering: business data visualization, tapping into the vast data sets organizations are collecting on sales or other lifeblood operating information.

“A large 3D canvas is the best way to visualize these large corporate data sets,” he says. “We can bring the data sets into iQ3 and let participants analyze the data freely in our 3D space.”

Ali Merchant, President & CEO, iQ3Connect