- shares

Ford Australia’s healthy Australian design and engineering division has invested in an upgrade of its immersive virtual reality studio that lets you ‘sit’ inside a car’s cabin before it’s actually built — and it was kind enough to give CarAdvice a go.

Called the Ford immersive Vehicle Environment (FiVE for short, and no, we don’t know why the ‘i’ is lower-case either), the lab is just one of two owned by the brand worldwide, the other being at home base in Dearborn, Michigan.

We wrote last week on the importance of Ford’s Melbourne R&D centre, which is the regional hub for all of the Asia Pacific region, and one of a trio of major global studios along with Dearborn and Cologne, Germany. It is a real feather in Ford Australia’s cap.

Ford Australia in fact launched the immersive lab in 2012, but that facility — which your writer also used at the time of launch — fell on the wrong side of the ‘uncanny valley’, being sort-of real but not quite real enough for comfort. It left yours-truly feeling a little nauseous.

Nevertheless, Ford’s local arm used this facility to help with quality control on no fewer than six separate vehicle programs to be launched either globally — think Escort, Everest SUV, Ranger upgrade and something else mysterious — or locally — Falcon and Territory update — in 2014/15.

Basically, Ford uses VR to test different cabin design, styling or ergonomic options before shelling out to make a ‘proper’ prototype. The digital data is also a figurative piece-of-cake to share globally to pick the brains of the other global studios. Easier than shipping a scale model, certainly.

FiVE Lab 2

Ford says this is especially useful in finding any issues in the conversion from left- to right-hand drive or vice-versa. On the new Mustang, for example, engineers viewing the vehicle in the virtual-reality setting in Dearborn found a way to alter the finish of the dashboard and improve ergonomics for right-hook models by shifting some exposed fasteners not picked up until the VR stage.

This revised version, which any fans of Oculus Rift will understand in theory and basic execution, offers a far more (near-photo) realistic simulacrum - see our image below of a Ranger displayed from the old VR system versus the new. As Ford puts it, FiVE allows “designers to build a full-size virtual car years before a customer gets behind the wheel”.

The overhaul, says Ford, brought with it updates to the lab’s hardware and software, including new photo-realistic virtual-reality software (VRED), and expanded motion-tracking equipment, finally equivalent to that used in the animation and gaming industry.

The FiVE lab’s creators also significantly expanded its physical footprint. The new space is now large enough to amply “fit” an entire virtual car, enabling designers to perform “walk-arounds” and experience the virtual model much like a consumer would experience a car at a dealership.

Basically, Ford knocked out a wall in its sealed windowless room in Melbourne’s outer suburbs and turned the whole shebang sideways, with the room now long enough to accommodate something such as a full-scale Everest or Ranger made of bits and bytes.

“Sometimes you have to step back to gain that special perspective, as any car buyer knows well. The larger lab gives us the extra space we need to get the whole experience, from the interior details to the exterior styling,” said Ford Asia Pacific digital innovation manager Peter Bunting.

IMG_0403

To break down the tech, the VRED software renders the virtual space in ultra-high definition, about four-times the resolution of HD. Using upgraded computing facilities, new high-definition headsets will deliver a full low-latency stereoscopic 3D experience, creating what Ford calls “a virtual world with a level of realism previously unattainable in the lab”.

The headset can even provide a view into the physical world, so the user can see his or her body in relation to the virtual data. In other words, wearing the headgear, you’re able to see both VR and the real-world environs simultaneously, if you wish to.

A new 4K-resolution display increases the level of detail at which engineers can inspect issues that arise throughout development. The actual movement of designers and engineers inspecting the virtual vehicles aligns with virtual movement, and is projected onto a screen and can be shared in real-time anywhere it needs to be.

Our crack at it was limited. The room consists of a single unadorned car seat with a steering wheel. To your right is a bank of screens manned by Ford boffins, flanked by servers. The information is projected also into a room next door with a massive ‘Power Wall’ of cinema proportions.

The headset is a little unwieldy, but once it’s on, the world alters and the plain seat and wheel turns into a complete car interior — in this case, the MY15 Mustang in RHD. It’s not 100 per cent photo-realistic, but it’s certainly accurate enough and detailed enough to spot the tiniest issues, such as surface changes and panel gaps.

We can say, for instance, that the Mustang’s 'gearstick' and 'stereo' controls are nicely within reach. That said, the processor was not able to make my sci-fi glove-adorned hand move in VR at quite the pace of actually reality. The lag was minor, but still enough to throw one off.

image

Take a torch, and you can illuminate parts of the cabin that require closer inspection. I’m directed to focus on a join at the base of the A-pillar, and I get an idea of how two adjoining pieces of material will appear in reality.

If, for instance, Ford feeds all its design data into FiVE and finds the fit of these two pieces is awry, far better to catch it at this stage than once the car has been turned into a scale model.

Being self-confessed geeks, the Ford team then turns my torch into a shiny green Star Wars light-sabre. Never thought I’d poke a Mustang dashboard with one of those… The Ford staffer assures me everyone makes the requisite sound affects, so I feel less ridiculous.

Next step is a walk-around to the front of the car — despite knowing there is just empty floor, you can’t help but duck under the imaginary car roof — and the chance to stick your head right into the guts of the engine block. The detail even here is spot-on.

A fellow motoring writer at one point laid down to inspect the car’s underpinnings. Neither the Ford team or yours truly told him about the capacity to put the car on a VR jack. We'll be honest, it was funnier to see him sprawled across the carpet with a headset on.

On departing we asked lab chief Peter Bunting where he thought the technology might go next, once it becomes more attainable. Among his many ideas, the one that grabbed us was a dealer service that would allow a buyer to load up an image of their house and driveway, and view their specialised vehicle ‘at home’ before they commit to it.

We’ll leave you with that one…