Ford Is Using Virtual Reality to Design Cars

VR could accelerate development, plus you get to wear sweet goggles.

There's still a sense of wonderment accompanying a car designer using pen and paper to create a sketch out of thin air, and we hope that will always be part of the design process. But virtual reality is emerging as a helpful tool that can speed up development by skipping the 2D stage and starting straight with a 3D model, and as it happens, Ford's designers are experimenting with virtual reality across five different design studios.

Both exterior and interior designers are creating cars in a virtual reality room visible via a special headset. Using a controller, designers gesture in the air to sketch a design, and the result is a virtual car they can rotate and view from any angle. They can place a virtual driver inside the vehicle, and even step inside the vehicle themselves to feel what it's like inside the cabin. Ford says the Gravity Sketch tool—it's named for the company that created it—can decrease design time from weeks to hours. Typically, cars begin as a 2D sketch, become a high-quality illustration, and then transform into an advanced 3D model with computer software. Under this process, only then is the car evaluated in a VR environment.

Ford Design Manager Michael Smith said Gravity Sketch will enable more human-centric car designs. "Jumping right into 3D gives us a 360-degree view of a vehicle as it is being created," he said in a statement.

Virtual reality is entering the automotive space in a variety of ways. At CES, Audi demonstrated tech that makes the drive experience part of a virtual reality game for vehicle passengers. When the car accelerates, brakes, or turns, the same happens in a game that features a spaceship flying through an asteroid field. Meanwhile, automakers are also experimenting with augmented reality. Nissan is using the tech to help drivers see around corners and behind buildings, for instance. A few years ago, we learned Ford was using hologram technology to create cars. With the help of wireless headsets, designers can place a hologram on top of a clay model or an actual car to see how different design changes would look.

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