Taking the virtual show on the road

CHICAGO'The big attraction of a trade show ' aside from the tote bags, t-shirts, stress balls and other great toys ' is the opportunity to see the latest technology up close and personal.

But much of the high-end, high-tech equipment being touted by exhibitors at the NXTcomm telecom industry trade show this week does not travel well to the show floor. Analysts, prospective customers and journalists are not allowed to play with sensitive network routing or storage equipment, and some products can be too expensive to cart out to satisfy the curiosity of the masses. That can make it difficult for a company to get its message out.

'The telecom market has seen a heightened competitiveness in the past few years,' said Gavin Finn, president of Kaon Interactive. 'Companies are worrying that their products are becoming commodities. What they need is a platform to differentiate their products.'

Some companies are turning to high performance 3-D modeling technology to show off equipment that cannot be easily displayed on the show floor.

Not coincidentally, Kaon manufacturers just such a product, which allows companies to demonstrate complex equipment in a virtual environment. The company's v-OSK display system has been available for about a year and is being used at this year's NXTcomm show floor by Cisco, Ciena and ADVA Optical Networking. It is available as an appliance or in a software-only version for online displays or laptops and is customized for the venue and the customer's product line.

V-OSK does not come cheap. It can cost from $5,000 to $25,000 to render a single product, depending on complexity, and with hardware the price can easily go to $100,000. But some users can save that much in a single show.

'It's an expensive proposition to go to a trade show,' Finn said.

Storage Technology has spent as much as $12,000 just powering high-end equipment at a show. Shipping can cost up to $40,000 and drayage ' the cost of having a union move the equipment on and off the floor ' can run as high as $20,000. Then there are the costs of the equipment itself and the personnel to operate and maintain it on the road.

Versions of v-OSK are optimized for online presentations, laptops or show floors. The modeling can be done for a single product, or for a line of products or an integrated solution. The flagship display is a standalone 37-inch flat-panel touch screen LCD monitor that sports an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and runs an NVIDIA graphic subsystem.

The 3-D modeling is done with off-the-shelf software, Finn said, but it uses proprietary software to add photographic texturing to the models.

'They don't look like computer-aided design models,' Finn said. 'They look like photo-realistic images of products.'

The real challenge was adding realistic animation to the models. In this case, realistic means behavior, not just movement. The system lets a viewer manipulate a product, opening it up, exchanging parts and configuring it. This requires sequence dependencies in the animation.

'You can animate a CAD system, but you can't make dependent animation,' Finn said. This requires a series of if-then scenarios: You can't take a line card out of a switch until an access door is open. Is the door open or shut? If open, don't open. If shut, don't take out card until opened, etc. Coding the scenarios is not particularly difficult, but a typical CAD file stores only images. Animating it realistically requires both object and state data for the images and that is what Kaon adds.

The result is good enough that the technology is moving out of the marketing realm.

'It has become a part of the training portfolio' in some companies, allowing technicians to work with the products virtually, Finn said. In the online version, it also is being used for customer support, allowing remote diagnostics of products.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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