DEARBORN - The term "virtual reality" conjures up images of -3-D video game applications of the future that promise users full immersion in the fantasy scenario of their choosing. However, thanks to a recently updated Ford Immersion Lab, today the company uses advanced iterations of this technology to improve the product development process and reduce cost.
The virtual reality space, officially dubbed FiVE (Ford immersive Vehicle Environment) looks fairly simple; it’s a large room approximately 22 by 36 feet enclosed by tall black walls with a 15’ by 9’ projection screen maximizing the better part of one of the walls. A typical office chair sits in the center of the space and the Virtual Reality gear – including a headset, a few very basic tools such as a flashlight and pointer stick are also available. There also is a fair amount of computer hardware in the room.
With the headset on, a user can see a high definition 3-D image of a vehicle (whichever model has been selected) and moves about the vehicle reviewing its appearance, fit-and-finish and even ergonomic placement of interior controls like the gear-shift knob as well as radio controls. As the user moves about the seemingly empty room, it’s apparent that the headset brings a virtual vehicle to life. And the flashlight and pointer stick are operational in the virtual environment the user sees.
“The large 4K screen is a huge improvement over the television we used before,” said Elizabeth Baron, technical specialist, Ford Virtual Reality and Advanced Visualization Technical. “It has a very high pixel density, which helps to the image appear to be real.”
Engineers can tweak the light (day vs. night), surroundings (urban vs. rural area) and even modify the color and certain exterior elements of the vehicle to determine the best engineering and design approach for every inch of the vehicle.
“Being able to alter light, for example, is very important,” said Baron. “One type of light may reveal a design flaw that couldn’t be seen in another, and being able to switch from a view in bright sun to a view in rain to what the car would look like at night with the click of a mouse is phenomenal.”
An estimated $8 million in savings were accrued by FiVE in 2013 alone.
It’s not hard to imagine how the savings add up when you consider that prior to using the Virtual Reality Immersion Lab; more physical models were built and used to locate design flaws. Unfortunately, according to Baron, it can be time consuming and costly to develop a prototype, not to mention the fact that they are often outdated as soon as they are completed due to suggested changes brought up while the prototype was being built.
“Prototypes are still used of course. But, this technology allows us to reduce investment in design-focused prototyping, which helps reduce cost while being more efficient with our time as well,” said Baron.
Another cost-saving characteristic of FiVE is it offers global conferencing capabilities. This means demonstrations and tests taking place here in the Dearborn Immersion Lab, can be broadcast and shared with engineers in other regions around the globe in real time.
“In the past, we would conduct tests and then send the results out to the other regions,” said Baron. “This practice took time. Conducting the tests and summarizing them to send. Now, engineers from all over the world can contribute to the analysis of the vehicle as it is happening, providing input and going through the process with us in real-time.”
As impressive as this technology is, development and progress never cease. Baron suggests the future of FiVE will include more opportunities to meld virtual reality with the real-world. “Let’s say we brought an F-150 XLT into the lab – the actual truck, but we wanted to see what it would look like with certain modifications or in a different trim level perhaps,” said Baron. “Our virtual technology could project those changes onto the actual vehicle giving us a clear picture of how those changes would look.”
Baron added that further into the future she thinks social media also will play a role in developing products through the virtual world, allowing even more collaboration among teams.
“We have a creative and cooperative team that never stops thinking of what we can do next,” said Baron. “We also have a lot of support from executive leadership which helps us feel confident Ford will continue to lead the way in incorporating new technologies to aid product development well into the future.”