It’s Virtually Impossible Not To Be Impressed by Virtual Reality

Things can happen at the speed of thought.

Mike FloydwriterAndrew Trahanphotographer

I spin around, and suddenly there it is behind me: a red Lexus LC500.

"Go ahead and take a look inside," says a voice somewhere in the ether. I hesitate for a moment and then decide to poke my head in through the window glass, instinctively bracing myself for impact. It never comes because the LC's not physically there. But man, does it ever seem like it.

By now you've probably seen people bobbing, gesticulating, or fumbling around with virtual reality (VR) goggles strapped to their skulls. I'll never forget the first time I put them on several years ago: I was teleported into an off-road buggy, hitting dunes, bombing along the trail, hucking myself over jumps. It was mind-bending. Others on staff have experienced world-class driving simulations using VR tech, and they relayed that everything down to the driving suits seemed, almost felt . . . real.

My latest VR demo with the Lexus, however, is more than just fun and games, though gaming—video-game technology, to be precise—is a key component of it.

As our own Robert Cumberford reported, designers and engineers are increasingly using VR as a tool to quickly and effectively create and collaborate while developing vehicles. If they think of it, they can do it—in real time. When Cumberford returned from a conference in Berlin last year after getting a demo of the latest automotive VR, powered by Unity Technologies, he was as excited as I'd heard him in years. And this is a hard man to impress.

I had a chance to see for myself what Unity is up to. Pretty soon after I donned the goggles, it became clear how profoundly the virtual world stands to impact vehicle design and manufacturing. "Once you put the headset on, it doesn't matter where you're at," Mark Schoennagel, Unity's lead evangelist for the Americas, says of one of the benefits of using VR in vehicle development. For example, say an automaker's design team works in multiple satellite offices across the world. Everyone straps on the VR goggles and dials in together, and they can discuss and change elements of the vehicle as they talk.

Unity in essence acts as the facilitator, the engine room that powers all the whizbangery. For years, the video game industry has deployed its core 3-D and VR technologies, with more than a million developers using and contributing to Unity's ever-expanding universe of tools and assets designed to speed products to market, be they video games or cars. The company has also worked with some of the world's leading automakers for some time now, but it recently created a division aimed solely at advancing its automotive-themed applications.

One of its most useful tools for the auto sector is what it calls the Unity Industry Bundle, a range of products and training that enables automakers to take the longtime industry-standard computer-aided design (CAD) files and crunch them into Unity's virtual environment. Previously, converting CAD drawings into 3-D files was a hugely time-intensive and computer-heavy process, often taking hours. Now, using Unity's bundle, it's down to minutes. The software essentially renders CAD drawings into 3-D representations people can view on everything from the highest-powered computers to an Xbox to a smartphone, some 35 different platforms in all. Like most industries, time is money in the automotive segment, so this facet alone is huge. But just as important is how easy it is to design on the fly once the vehicle is in the Unity environment.

"My favorite thing to do is sticking my face in the steering wheel," Schoennagel says as I put on the glasses again. I'm looking at the LC 500's underlying platform in the virtual world, and of course I have to take him up on his suggestion. All of the wheel's components flash by as I press my mug through to the steering column. Wow! I'm also shown how to see an exploded view of the parts using a hand-trigger device, and I peer into the engine block to get a look at the pistons. It's fascinating stuff that offers up endless development opportunities.

Unity VR has also been used in other areas in the automotive sector, from helping painters to more efficiently spray to optimizing factory workflows to training workers how to assemble a part. Dealers use it to give prospective customers a virtual perspective of the vehicle they're interested in.

The Lexus is back on the monitor, and Schoennagel guides it through a wooded environment he downloaded from the thousands available from Unity's ecosphere. He crashes it, and the front end crumples. That's going to buff out—one click and it's fixed. If only it were that easy in real life.

Related Articles