Real-time 3D technology in industry, explained

Discover how companies across industries are harnessing real-time 3D – technology forged in gaming – to enhance how their products are designed, engineered, manufactured, sold, and serviced.

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How industry leaders use real-time 3D technology

Before we tell you what real-time 3D is, let’s show you how your peers are applying it across their businesses. 

Thousands of companies across a range of industries have embraced this technology, including in aerospace, automotive, energy, government, healthcare, industrial machinery, manufacturing, retail, transportation, and more.

What’s different about real-time 3D?

Real-time 3D (RT3D) is a computer graphics technology that generates interactive content faster than human perception. Check out this page for a deeper dive into how this technology works.  

Interactivity is at the core of real-time 3D. Unlike movies for example, which create the perception of motion but offer the same passive experience to the audience – real-time 3D immerses people in a digital reality that feels authentic, while giving them control over their experience, much like a video game.

Real-time 3D experiences are fundamentally both:

  • Immersive, because the digital representation of reality approaches the authenticity of our analog experience of reality, and
  • Interactive, because users have precise control over their experience and vantage point.

While there are limitless ways to leverage real-time 3D, companies in the industries listed above often use it to create realistic, behaviorally accurate digital representations of their 3D models, combined with information from data sources such as enterprise databases and sensors. Sometimes referred to as digital twins, these interactive 3D representations look and behave like the physical product and can be deployed to mobile devices, computers, augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) headsets, and other platforms.

Check out a real-time 3D experience

Now that you have a sense of what real-time 3D is, take this real-time 3D car configurator – created by Light & Shadows – for a spin. 

You may need to wait a couple of minutes for it to load, but we promise it’s worth the wait. In the meantime, you can continue reading and check back soon.

Once you’re in, configure the car to your liking and explore it from any vantage point. If you're on your phone, flip to landscape mode for the best experience.

The business impact of real-time 3D

Manufacturing companies face no shortage of challenges in driving profitable growth – designs are getting more complex, production timelines are getting tighter, and buyers are getting more selective. Under the pandemic conditions of 2020, these difficulties are exacerbated.

Companies using real-time 3D can better navigate these challenges. Research shows real-time 3D unlocks the following benefits:

  • Cost savings from, for example, reducing reliance on expensive physical prototypes and catching design and engineering flaws earlier.
  • Faster time to market by condensing research and development (R&D) timelines, training automated systems in simulated environments, and other improvements.
  • Improved product margins by increasing workforce productivity, performing aftermarket services more reliably and quickly, and so on.
  • Increased sales by presenting products in compelling ways beyond traditional multimedia formats.

Top uses of real-time 3D

Applications for real-time 3D technology run the gamut, from the initial stages of R&D all the way through to aftermarket sales – and everything in between. Manufacturing companies that have adopted real-time 3D use it widely: for more than eight different use cases, on average, according to a commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Unity, published in March 2020. 

Some examples across the product lifecycle include:

Design & Engineering
Common use cases: Virtual prototyping and commissioning, immersive design reviews, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) visualization, autonomous system simulation, human-machine interface (HMI) development, etc.

Real-world example of real-time 3D: Lockheed Martin builds products virtually to minimize physical prototyping and testing, saving millions of dollars by discovering and resolving issues much earlier in development.

Common use cases: Technician training, AR-guided assistance during production, digital factory simulation, virtual assembly process validation, etc.

Real-world example of real-time 3D: The BMW Group created AR and VR applications for training frontline workers, workstation planning at the assembly line, and quality control.

Sales & Marketing
Common use cases: Virtual events, interactive product configurators, photorealistic renderings, sizzle videos, mixed reality shopping experiences, etc.

Real-world example of real-time 3D: Autoliv boosted its global salesforce’s ability to close deals by presenting its complex products in interactive 3D rather than 2D slide presentations.

Service & Usage

Common use cases: Remote maintenance, AR-based guidance, safety training, real-time digital twins for sensor/data simulation and visualization, etc.

Real-world example of real-time 3D: ABB replaced time-consuming, costly training programs by developing an AR-based system that guides field technicians to maintain and service equipment on industrial sites efficiently and safely.

The value of extending real-time 3D across the business

Real-time 3D addresses challenges across the entire lifecycle, ensuring products are better designed, engineered, manufactured, sold, and serviced. The study by Forrester Consulting found that:

Most adopters are already using real-time 3D across multiple touchpoints in the business … [They] find that the more places … they implement real-time 3D, the more seamlessly these processes are integrated as it provides a more interactive medium for collaboration and communication.

Indeed, 90% of companies using real-time 3D find it valuable for supporting interdepartmental collaboration. There’s a reason for that: Once models exist in a virtual environment, they can be extended for any use case across the business.

That means virtual models used in the design studio can also be leveraged by the production team to place assembly instructions into AR, as well as the marketing team to create high-fidelity, interactive content. These synergies speed up the entire product lifecycle and reduce inefficiencies from traditional waterfall-style handoffs between departments. See how Volvo has extended real-time 3D across its automotive lifecycle.


Bringing real-time 3D experiences to life

Companies harness the power of real-time 3D using software like Unity, the leading real-time 3D development platform. Sometimes referred to as game engines, real-time 3D development platforms offer robust capabilities to both create interactive digital content and deploy it to run on various platforms, such as mobile devices, computers, and head-mounted displays. 

Let’s dive into how real-time 3D content is created and consumed.

Who creates real-time 3D experiences?

Today, the primary creators of real-time 3D experiences in the industrial sector have technical backgrounds, such as software engineers and AR/VR developers. This is because the vast majority of enterprise applications built on this technology require custom development and programming expertise. (Unity uses C#.)  

The pool of real-time 3D users is expanding, however, as Unity and other companies make real-time 3D accessible to nonprogrammers, in turn making it easier to scale custom development. 

Here are some of the ways that barriers to real-time 3D are being lowered for nonprogrammers:

  • Visual scripting: Visual, node-based interfaces like Bolt enable nontechnical users to create logic for applications without writing code.
  • Product innovation: New products such as Unity Reflect condense the process for bringing 3D models into real-time environments into a few clicks. There are also a growing selection of artist-friendly tools within programs like Unity to increase artistic productivity and creativity without programming knowledge.  
  • Out-of-the-box solutions: As demand for immersive, interactive experiences has increased, many independent software vendors have leveraged this technology to build solutions for specific use cases while removing the need for coding and scripting. Interact, a Unity Verified Solution Partner application, enables professionals without coding skills to easily create physically realistic VR experiences.
  • Service delivery: Custom solutions can be created that accommodate nonprogrammers and fit the way they work, like this project created for Honda's automotive designers. For instance, the extensibility of platforms like Unity enables companies to tailor Unity’s user interface so that nontechnical users such as designers or marketers can harness the power of real-time 3D.

How are real-time 3D experiences created?

(Above) Real-time 3D enables teams to iterate and experience the results instantly.

A typical real-time 3D industrial workflow starts by ingesting existing content. Imported 3D geometry and metadata can come in many forms, including but not limited to:

  • Computer-aided design (CAD) assemblies from applications such as Alias, CATIA, Creo, Inventor, and NX
  • Meshes from 3D modeling and visualization applications like 3ds Max, Blender, Maya, and VRED
  • Reality capture data of products or locations from point clouds, photogrammetry, and LiDAR scanning
  • Building information modeling (BIM) data from programs like Autodesk Revit and Navisworks
  • Materials from standardized formats like AxF and xTex

To achieve the best performance and visual quality when deploying to various platforms, real-time 3D content typically needs to be optimized. The optimization process ensures complex models become lightweight representations that are compatible for real-time development and can properly support interactivity on devices like phones and VR headsets. Companies can use purpose-built tools from Pixyz to import models and reduce their density, complexity, and file size, while preserving quality. 

Once assets are ready for real-time 3D, development can begin. Users can accelerate scene creation with 3D models, objects, environments (i.e., the virtual world), and more from Unity’s Asset Store. Unity lets users iterate rapidly and adjust components like animations, audio and video, cinematics, environments, lighting, user interfaces, visual effects, and more. At any point in development, users enjoy real-time previews of their work – visualization is instant, so there’s no waiting around for the results to render.

For complex enterprise applications, Unity also provides the flexibility to do more with:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI): Unity provides a rich set of machine learning (ML) tools and the ability to integrate with multiple AI and ML frameworks, which is especially helpful for using simulated environments to train and validate intelligent systems.
  • Systems engineering: Prespective, another Unity Verified Solution Partner application, provides a powerful systems engineering framework to connect Unity with external control systems, such as programmable logic controllers or software emulations of control systems, and external math models, such as a functional mock-up unit (FMU) or MATLAB.
  • Enterprise integrations: Unity’s powerful application programming interface (API), built-in networking capabilities and integrations to third-party network stacks provide a robust and reliable way to extend applications to support remote collaboration, integration with Internet of Things (IoT) systems, or almost any networked application you can imagine.

How are real-time 3D experiences shared?

The value of real-time 3D as a medium of consumption is its parallels to reality. Our world is in three dimensions – we move, think and experience in 3D. Compared to static experiences like images and videos, the extended spatial presence that a virtual environment replicates brings numerous benefits, including enhanced problem solving, better knowledge retention, higher levels of engagement and understanding, and much more.

Unity offers a rich set of interaction models so that people can interact in real-time with “live” applications (known as a runtime application) on a mobile device, through a web browser, using AR, in a fully immersed VR experience, and more. Real-time 3D can also be embedded into existing properties, such as a mobile app or e-commerce page. 

Consumers of real-time 3D technology can be internal stakeholders, such as a frontline worker receiving maintenance instructions from a mixed reality headset, or external audiences, such as the millions of people visiting your website and interacting with your real-time 3D configurator. Real-time 3D can enable individual experiences, such as a design team lead reviewing the latest prototype, or shared experiences, such as a networked engineering review session in VR that brings together multiple participants into a single collaborative environment.

Dive deeper into real-time 3D

Learn more about real-time 3D technology by checking out our solutions or reading our commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Unity.

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