Immersive Design — A Virtual Reality Case Study

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A new Adidas makerspace, located inside a giant digital sneaker, offers virtual reality 3D design tools for remote design collaboration.

Jean Thilmany, Senior CAD Writer

When Adidas designers were tasked with creating a seamless sneaker, they donned their Oculus headsets and got to work in the virtual world.

The team met regularly in a large footprint-shaped studio that only existed in a virtual world entered via the Oculus. Of course, each member of the team was really in separate physical spaces, but with the help of the headsets and the immersive world, they felt like they were meeting in real life.

This decision dramatically reduced the time spent creating an initial mock-up: from 21 days to less than a day, says Paul Sholz, senior footwear designer at Adidas.

“In the design process, you create boards for inspiration and brainstorm together. What we did in this virtual environment was the same, but we designed the actual product,” he says.

The Harden Vol. 5, the first shoe in the Adidas Futurenatural line of seamless molded sneakers. 1 credit

Scholz and his colleagues spoke in November 2021 at the Around online conference. Conference sponsor Gravity Sketch is creating a 3D design platform hosted in virtual reality, which is the tool Adidas uses to help design its Futurenatural footwear. The company gave the same name to its range of tools accessible within the immersive environment.

The seamless one-piece sneaker line just made its debut, about 18 months after the design team’s first virtual meeting. Futurenatural sneakers are molded rather than sewn. That is, the upper is fused to the sole with high pressure and heat to create what feels like a continuous shoe, with no obvious break between top and bottom.

Traditionally, shoe designs often work in two dimensions, extrapolating 2D lines to form side views of the proposed shoe. But building designs in the 3D virtual environment allows a mockup to materialize faster, says Adidas creative designer Robert Stinchcomb. He played a leading role in the introduction of the virtual system in the company.

Designers wear Oculus headsets to design in 3D with Gravity Sketch software. They feel like the design is floating in front of them, in a virtual world, and they can easily make updates and changes to that design. Credit: Gravity Sketch

“Now it’s about showing up to work at nine and 3 with a mockup to the point where you can see everything and talk about ‘let’s change the overlay here,'” says Stinchcomb.

The mockup is a preliminary design “almost like a napkin sketch,” he adds. “It’s a place where we sketch out designs before we flesh them out, before we do a sample. And we do that in a room that’s super collaborative where we can talk to each other even though we might not even be in the same country.

The team can quickly come up with 10 or 15 sneaker concepts, says Arnau Sanjuan, Adidas Design Director, Footwear Innovation.

“It’s easy to see what the designs would look like, play around with them, brainstorm ideas together quickly,” he says.

The Futurenatural studio is very much like a virtual reality game. Designers move around the virtual world – moving between a series of “stations” – much the same way they would any virtual reality game in which avatars work together.

Gravity Sketch creates a 3D design platform hosted in virtual reality, which is the tool used by Adidas to help design its Futurenatural shoes.

The first stop is for the design. Here the designers create the 3D model of the shoe. Surfaces are added at a second stop. Then, place to the details and rendering. All before the creation of a physical prototype.

Because the shoe is easy to see and understand, the finished mockup can be immediately shared with manufacturers and marketers for feedback. They don’t need Oculus, as designs can be captured and shared via other methods. Suggested changes are quickly made in the virtual environment.

James Harden’s foot
The model starts with the human foot. But for Futurenatural, the company took a different approach. Like many shoemakers, the company used a generic shape – the term for a 3D model of the foot – meant to represent the common sneaker wearer. For the Futurenatural line, Adidas wanted a better fit.

Adidas has scanned the feet of thousands of people, including those of professional athletes. Of course, the popular shoemaker already had impressions of athletes who have promoted their own Adidas sneakers in the past. Brooklyn Nets basketball player James Harden is one of those elite players. The Supernatural line debuted the player’s fifth signature basketball shoe, Harden Vol. 5.

Engineers have collected all types of feet – large, small, narrow, wide, to best represent the foot. From there, they developed a new “last”.

The designers are taking their first foray into the Gravity Sketch virtual environment to adapt the latest with experimental sneaker concepts. This is where they play with articulated lines in the 3D environment, rather than extrapolating the view and fit from a 2D print, says Stinchcomb. They can rotate the view to see what the shoe would look like, from the top, bottom, and sides.

During this first stop in their virtual environment, Stinchcomb and his fellow designers come up with new ideas for a sneaker’s cushion and play with the ways the upper could be molded and pressed. They sculpt the arches and add cushioning to the sole in areas where the foot would benefit from reinforcement.

Collaboration is a key part of this design, with designers chatting in the virtual world as they gesture pieces and play with the design, says Stinchcomb.

“We take a shoe and blow it up and invite people into the space and specify every detail. We can scale it up to the size of a warehouse and they can swim around the shoe, diving deep into each piece,” he says.

“At such an early stage, we can discuss complex details in the form,” he adds. In fact, these first iterations contain enough information to be fleshed out even more, which takes place in the next step, or station: surfacing.

This is where the skeleton comes together and the volumes are defined, says Stinchcomb. Here, the designers wrap their shoe to simulate the material they have in mind for the end use. At this stage, they create a continuous, realistic surface using SmoothKit software to accentuate the effects.

The team also uses Adobe Substance Painter to “get the feel of the material” and to shade the image so it’s “as realistic as possible,” says senior design Marius Jung.

Because the shoe industry makes heavy use of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, these new tools were a bit of a departure for the team, he says.

“In the past, we spent hours creating the right shadows and lighting, and now we can speed that up and dive right into the detail like we’ve never been able to before,” he says.

When designers are satisfied with the shape and appearance of the shoe, they move on to the next area of ​​the virtual design space. At this point, they add details such as laces and lace loops to their continuous surface. The team then renders the artwork with KeyShot software to give the image a photorealistic, realistic quality.

At this point, the team can share the image with other Adidas departments, primarily marketing and manufacturing. These teams come up with their suggestions long before a final virtual prototype, let alone a physical prototype, is created, says senior designer Marius Jung. Their input is significant, as the Supernatural line is a step up from the usual. Designers need to know, and need to know early: can the manufacturer make a mold for this shoe using the designated materials? Will buyers be pleased or dismayed by this form for a new integrated sole?

Members of these teams can be invited into the virtual world if they have access to an Oculus. Alternatively, images can be shared on a desktop, says Jung.

Adidas worked with one of its factories to develop a new production process for the new shoe. During the design, representatives of this manufacturer contributed ideas for tooling. They also offered feedback on how they could produce the piping and lace loops. Marketers made suggestions for brand placement and other features.

Mutual maker space
The Futurenatural design team had been working together for almost a year in March 2020 when the COVID pandemic forced many companies to move their employees to home offices. Some engineering and design companies stuttered a bit when they found new ways to collaborate outside of an office.

Even people who are regularly linked by collaboration software may have felt hiccups when accessing software on their personal computers, in their home spaces. Meanwhile, he and his Adidas teammates have returned to their familiar space – the virtual office and the manufacturing space within the virtual shoe, says Arnau Sanjuan, Design Director of Footwear Innovation.

“I’ve always been the type to be in the studio figuring things out with my hands and working with materials,” he says. “I found that my 3D work could replace those things. We work so closely together in this world.

Scholz also pointed to the inventive atmosphere in the digital imprint.

“Virtual space has kept creativity and the spirit alive during the pandemic,” he says. “It’s just a fun, intuitive and playful way to create serious products.”

And that playfulness manifested itself with the debut of Harden Vol. 5 in January 2021 and subsequent Futurenatural products, which feature polka dots, specks and paint splurges in a number of patterns and colors, wavy soles and an upper that blends seamlessly with the bottom of the shoe for an almost sock see.

Going forward, the line is expected to include more materials and new designs. The shoes will, of course, be designed in the digital footprint using Gravity Plus 3D design technologies.

“The virtual reality system has definitely demonstrated its worth,” says Sanjuan. “Now everyone wants to try. Because the learning curve is so simple, it’s spreading like wildfire to put 3D into the hands of anyone who wants it.

These newcomers are welcome, he adds.

“Especially in a big, big company like Adidas, it’s important to inject new processes into shoes and see things in a different way,” Sanjuan says.


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