Technologies ranging from autonomous vehicles to virtual-reality headsets require the careful implementation of optics.

Before cutting metal or polishing the glass, however, a designer needs to validate the design.

A software-based technique known as virtual prototyping is often used to simulate how light travels through the complete optomechanical product. Virtual prototyping also tests broader effects — ones that may not always be considered under the usual definition of the term.

In a presentation this month titled Six Best Practices for Optical Product Design Teams, a reader had the following question for Mark Nicholson, CEO of the Kirkland, WA-based optical design software manufacturer Zemax.

You’ve used the term ‘virtual prototyping’ different than the way I hear it commonly used. What is your definition of virtual prototyping?”

Read Nicholson’s edited response below.

Mark Nicholson, CEO, Zemax: We do see people simply referring to any kind of computer simulation as virtual prototyping. We want to be able to extend virtual prototyping into doing things that haven’t typically been purely in the optical domain, and are really multiphysics types of problems.

Something as simple as taking a mounted optical system and dropping it in the virtual world, and seeing how the stress of being dropped propagates through the system — Does it break components? Does it misalign components? Does it have no effect? Those are the kind of things we are really looking at it from a perspective of virtual prototyping.

With real prototyping, people take what they think is going to work and they test it out. That’s really something we would like to be able to do in the virtual world, to see not just the effects of stray lights and such, but also the effects of stress, and the mounting, and temperature gradients, and shocks introduced in use. We are happy using a broader definition of the term virtual prototyping.

Have you tried virtual prototyping? Share your comments and questions below.