Reality is what you make it

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Seeing is believing that virtual reality will play an important role in retail

There was nothing external to distinguish the room from the hundreds of others deep inside Ford’s Dearborn engineering and design complex.

Stepping inside, it didn’t seem unusual: a meeting table at one end; a technician behind an electronic console along one side; and a huge video screen covering the opposite wall.

It did seem strange, however, that the rest of the big room was empty.

There was more than enough space in the central area to accommodate a car, with plenty of walk-around room as well. But there was none there.

Except there was — a 2018 Mustang! It’s just that we couldn’t see it.

The car was virtual, you see. The only one who could see it was Elizabeth Baron, a technical specialist in Ford’s Virtual Reality & Advanced Visualization department, who was wearing the requisite VR goggles that made the vision real.

With the flip of a switch (or probably the click of a digital icon), what Baron saw also appeared on the big screen for the rest of us. There, of course, it was in 2D rather than 3D form, but it was impressive nonetheless.

It showed every detail of the car as she moved around it, including the underbody when she lay down on the floor and slid underneath, and the interior when she pulled up a chair and sat down inside it.

It also reflected subtle appearance changes on the surfaces as the sun moved through the sky. Or as the background instantly changed from a beach scene to a rainy city street.

Far more than just a glorified video game, this car was a virtual prototype of the real thing, so complete that the view she selected could be a cross-sectional cutaway of the car at any chosen point, just as if it had been sliced through with a razor-sharp blade. So complete was the detail that it showed the cross-section of every individual wire.

That level of precision was possible because the computer programming that enabled it comprised the digital CAD drawings of every single component in the car, including how they all fit together. Therein lies one of the major benefits of virtual imaging.

Of course, it provides a platform for executives to view advanced designs and instantly change things like colours, materials or textures, allowing consideration of many more iterations than would be practical if building physical models.

It also enables the development of training, promotional and marketing materials, including video production, well in advance of real cars becoming available for such use.

At earlier stages, it permits the real-space evaluation of things like control ergonomics and sight lines and reflections that would otherwise be difficult to experience without real three-dimensional models. And even then, perhaps not as realistically.

But, arguably, the greatest benefit of VR imaging is the ability to assemble all the pieces of the car together, instantly revealing any potential fit interferences or mismatches, long before prototype production parts are available — in fact, allowing such problems to be resolved before those parts are ever built.

Ford is far from the only automaker employing such technology, although Baron suggests it is probably the most advanced in some aspects of it.

The use of VR has become SOP at design and development stages throughout the industry. Which raises the question: With all the hype surrounding VR at the consumer level these days, when will it impact the retail side of the auto business?

It already has to some degree.

Audi, for example, demonstrated a consumer-oriented system at CES earlier this year and is using it at its flagship Audi City London store, as well as a few more around the world.

It’s far less sophisticated than Ford’s design and engineering level system but it allows customers to move around the exterior of the vehicle, open the trunk and doors, look under the hood, and even sit in the driver’s seat. They can also change colours and interior trim.

Ford demonstrated a similar consumer-oriented system at the Detroit auto show this year, and other automakers are experimenting with the concept as well.

Beyond the high-tech aura such systems engender, they also have the potential to offer customers more choices of colour and trim than it may be practical to carry in stock.

Or, as the technology progresses to the home-user level, it could provide one more reason for customers to avoid the dealership altogether until it’s actually time to do a deal.

More food for thought in a changing world!

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