From Hollywood blockbusters to TV commercials, the days of wincing at poor quality computer-generated imagery (CGI) are numbered; advances in the software and hardware required to create highly realistic images mean that it’s increasingly difficult to identify where reality ends and virtual reality begins.
With that in mind, it’s worth noting that many of the realistic-looking images of cars – and other products – seen online, in magazines and on television have been produced not using top-of-the-range digital camera technology, but with high-end 3D visualisation software.
Digital product visualisations are built on CAD data. 3D visualisations can be found everywhere – and the visualisation technique can be applied to any product, whether it’s an aeroplane, a car, a train, a T-shirt, a suit or a pair of trainers.
“We apply it across the value chain,” explains Roberto Schettler, Chief Executive of Dassault Systèmes’ high-end 3D visualisation brand, 3DExcite. “The use of digital vehicle marketing is increasing, and we provide the relevant software and creative services.”
The marketing and sales processes begin long before vehicles are built. “We feed marketing with product visuals based on the data from the design and development process. Once you go deeper into the sales space, that’s where OEMs usually use online car configurators to promote their products to the full. Cars are of course very visual. You go online to configure your chosen car, adding minute details to your vehicle, right down to the colour of stitching on the seats.
“This kind of experience already happens at manifold points of sale and in virtual showrooms, and in the future, people will experience more life-sized cars in dealerships of all kinds. There are various concepts, from virtual tours where you can sit virtually in the car, walk around it and experience all the different aspects of the car, up to X-ray views that reveal the vehicle’s workings.” Sounds familiar? 3DExcite supported Audi when the OEM created its Audi City line of stores in London.
So, how does it work? “First of all, we provide 3D visualisation software. Our core product is called Deltagen. In addition, we have a product called Picturebook for asset management and automation, and a number of different visualisation products. At the other end, we offer creative services with a focal point on CGI stills and movies. And in-between the two, our solutions team takes those software portfolio and artistic capabilities and merges them together in solutions, whether that’s at the point of sale or for engineering.”
Car configurators need constantly to be fed with new data and images – at least every six months, agrees Schettler, due to face-lifts and model updates. And the field is becoming competitive. “But there is nobody like us – we combine all the required capabilities under one roof,” he explains. “That’s why we are the leading company in the field of visual configurators for web, dealerships and mobile applications. There are literally thousands of such systems out there in the showrooms across many brands, and we are the only company that has this industrial strength to carry-out projects from A to Z.”
Not only do configurators need to be kept up to date, they need to be accurate, and they need to be easy to update, notes Schettler. “That’s where the industrial processes come in and that’s where the solution team also acts on building a data pipeline that hooks up to the engineering processes, taking the latest CAD data to help create a 3D model that represents the true product, digitally. When the next update of the product comes around, the model year update for a car for instance, you just exchange the few aspects in the master model that have changed, instead of rebuilding the whole thing. This is where you save cost, and that’s where our strength lies.”
In addition to its marketing work, 3DExcite provides solutions for designers and engineers, such as 3D crash visualisation. “We take crash simulation data and add our capabilities to create a movie or stills that show the crash as if in real life. When we think about cars, we think about beautiful surfaces that shine. When we experimented with crashed cars, we realised what huge potential lies in the implementation of very accurate and lifelike 3D visualisation in crash test analysis.”
Schettler goes on to explain what he means. “Much of the engineering phase is about communication. A crash engineer knows exactly what the numbers mean in the data columns produced by a crash simulation. But try communicating that to someone who is not an engineer! That’s where we come in. We create photorealistic true life visualisations based on this data. And that is something that engineers can use amongst themselves, but they can also use it in their communication with designers or management, for example.” Indeed, adds Schettler, since the launch of the Deltagen Real Impact crash test visualisation solution, the company has received urgent requests from other companies in the industry that have not yet fully adopted 3D visualisation, but urgently needed a visualisation of one particular part to illustrate a point to senior management.
3DExcite’s crash test 3D visualisation solution was created in collaboration with Honda R&D Americas, which together developed a Deltagen plug-in called Deltagen Real Impact. This plug-in enables Honda’s engineers to create highly-realistic 3D renderings of crash events, and the results serve as the basis for testing and analysis of different designs with greater speed and efficiency.
However, it was through its work with Honda that 3DExcite further understood the importance of this application not just for engineers, but also for marketing departments. “They loved it!” grins Schettler. “It was the first time the marketing people had visual proof of what happens underneath the skin of the cars they were promoting. With our software, we can take the sheet metal off – virtually – to show the structures underneath. A user can point a virtual camera at any structure they want, and see the crash in ways they’ve never seen it before. We were in Honda’s TV commercials in the US because they wanted to show customers the levels of detail they go to when developing their cars.”
Using visualisation software means that engineers and other interested parties within a car company in different global locations can all look at the same thing at the same time – on a virtual basis. “And we have even shown a proof of concept around that,” says Schettler. “Imagine, there are engineers and other employees around the world in their own offices using virtual reality glasses. They feel like they are in the very same room and talking about a product that appears to be standing in front of them. They can see their colleague and work with them on that particular product. That’s about to happen. There are some other requirements that still need to be created or come together, but I would predict that in a very short time that will be the norm rather than the exception.”
Moving from the exception to the norm usually involves overcoming hurdles, and with something like high-end visualisation, this can often be a cultural or traditional hurdle. How does a company like Schettler’s respond to those in the automotive industry who say they have been working perfectly well using real life instead of 3D visualisation, and believe they can work just as well or even better without virtual prototypes?
“I would say that, as with all new technology, there are some early adopters who show the rest of the sector the great work that can be done with that technology,” nods Schettler. “Once it is proven, the rest will jump. The car industry is adopting lifelike 3D visualisation to varying degrees, and outside the automotive industry, 3D visualisation is already catching on in an increasing number of other industries. I don’t see a difference between adopting this and adopting other breakthrough technologies. We are on the verge of a large number of players adopting this across many industry sectors.”