The game is on: automotive product development in a new virtual world

Digital visualisation and virtual reality tools in automotive design engineering are not new, but the technology is now beginning to show its true potential with the adoption of expertise from the video games industry. By Richard Harrington

All of the major vehicle manufacturers have adopted real-time visualisation or rendering technology to some extent, in either 2D or 3D guise depending on application. Computer generated imagery has been dominant in marketing materials and the latest digital configurators provide a virtual realism in the sales process that was unavailable even just a few years ago.

The digital car is now crucial. Using this technology, OEMs can develop and evaluate more configurations in less time and greatly reduce the number of physical prototypes, which are costly and slow to build and update” – Simon Jones, Director, Unreal Engine Enterprise

The next big step forward, though, will be made much earlier in the vehicle lifecycle – at the very beginning of the product development (PD) journey – and then continued throughout the PD process. The arrival of new technologies that will allow engineers to view three-dimensional, virtual representations of everything from a single component to a complete vehicle will be a game-changer in the quest for optimal efficiency, enabling the time that would be added to a programme by greater complexity to be offset by ‘multi-tasking’ in the virtual world. This flexibility and increased speed of processes will become even more important as autonomous vehicles become established and the complexity of designing and engineering dynamic new user interfaces grows exponentially.

As long ago as 2010, a Jaguar Land Rover advanced engineering manager was outlining to the media why digital development was becoming so important: “While the time taken to develop a car is still about three years, the greater complexity of vehicles has significantly increased the amount of work required,” explained Ian Anderton. “The virtual reality system helps us to ensure that we still deliver the highest quality products because we are using our time in a much more efficient way.”

By making the design process leaner and buying us more time, the technology clearly opens up more opportunity for innovation, more discussion with suppliers and therefore the opportunity to bring a better, more advanced product to market” – Robert Melville, Chief Designer, McLaren Automotive

Time for real-time

That was then. Now – and still more importantly in the decades to come – it is time, or more specifically, the benefits gained from saving it, that is the reason why automotive design and PD functions are becoming so engaged with real-time visualisation technologies.

Underpinning a development programme with CAVE (Computer Aided Virtual Environment) engineering is now taken as read, with every OEM able to call on the technology. The only boast worth making is how cutting-edge it is: Renault partnered with technology provider Mechdyne in 2014 to install a facility in its Paris headquarters that included a PowerWall boasting a head node with 18 rendering nodes (each with an NVIDIA GPU, the industry standard for computer graphics processors) and five sides of Sony 4K projectors scalable to 16K – the first environment to have with that capability and heralded at the time as having the highest resolution ever realised in a VR environment.

Other OEMs may well have something more advanced by now and are simply keeping quiet about it; what is certain is that we are entering a new stage in the integration of VR processes into the product development discipline, with the rise of even more advanced technologies that have their roots in the video games industry. Not only are these new systems more capable, they are also substantially more affordable, allowing for greater access throughout an organisation.

One of the companies that will enable more OEMs to embrace real-time digital modelling – and with it augmented, virtual and mixed reality – is Epic Games. Epic’s well established real-time development tool, Unreal Engine, has been around for more than 20 years and is behind some of the best-selling video games in history. The company’s decision in 2015 to make it free to games developers and creative agencies wanting to use the technology saw an explosion in its adoption, not only in video gaming but from companies wanting to use the platform for projects across automotive, aviation, architecture and consumer electronics.

The digital car

As a result, Epic, which is headquartered in the US state of North Carolina, this year set up a bespoke division to engage with – and satisfy – demanding corporate customers like vehicle manufacturers who were wanting to use Unreal Engine for automotive development. The latest iteration of Unreal Engine, designated 4.12, is the first to integrate features that have been requested specifically by enterprise customers.

“Vehicle manufacturers are well-served by very sophisticated packages and pipelines so our role is to add value beyond this,” comments Simon Jones, director of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine Enterprise division. “Some of the biggest names in the auto industry are actively evaluating how they can expand their capabilities by revolutionising some of their processes”.

Jones continues: “The digital car is now crucial. Using this technology, OEMs can develop and evaluate more configurations in less time and greatly reduce the number of physical prototypes, which are costly and slow to build and update.

“Unreal Engine empowers vehicle manufacturers to use this technology in their internal teams, unlocking the imagination of their designers and engineers by enabling them to do things they haven’t been able to before and, just as importantly, allowing them to do more of it, a vital capability given the proliferation of model lines, derivatives and customer personalisation.”

Two of the latest vehicle manufacturers to confirm the importance of real-time visualisation and VR-based technologies are in the upper echelon of reputation for product design rigour and advanced engineering delivery.

A ‘Real-Time Rendered Future’ digital presentation of a McLaren 570S, using real CAD data supplied by McLaren Automotive and produced using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, was revealed at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in March, positioning the British supercar manufacturer firmly within the vanguard of the new digital space. A month later in April, BMW announced that it had become the first car manufacturer to introduce a mixed reality system devised entirely using components from the video games industry into vehicle development. These systems are strong indicators of approaches that are ground-breaking today, but which in the coming years will be universal.

VR enables you to look at the execution of detail areas without having to make separate desktop models. You can also sit inside the interior environment, immerse yourself – and by combining VR with some physical elements we can check reach zones and head clearances” – Robert Melville, Chief Designer, McLaren Automotive

Photo-realistic

BMW has acknowledged that it has been employing VR in its development process since the 1990s but with the new system it was “…reaffirming its pioneering status by systematically implementing technology from a sector which has not previously been the focal point of industrial applications” – namely video gaming.

Citing the shorter innovation cycles of consumer electronics as enabling a much wider scope of functionality and lower costs for the hardware it needs, BMW has taken advantage of technical and human expertise from the computer games industry to immerse PD engineers and designers in a virtual world where a burgeoning number of vehicle functions can be translated into a VR model in an increasingly realistic fashion.

Incorporating Vive VR headsets from mobile computing manufacturer HTC, the BMW system allows vehicle functions and interior designs to be rapidly modelled with the aid of 3D visual experiences. The headsets consist of two high-resolution screens and a laser-based HTC Vive ‘Lighthouse’ tracking system that covers an area of 5 x 5 metres in the BMW application. The real-time graphical output is computed by the same Unreal Engine software platform used by McLaren.

With stable rendering at a rate of 90 frames per second and photo-realistic quality, the BMW system enables ultra-precise tracking of every body movement, allowing the wearer to move around in the virtual environment with zero interference – essential for creating realistic spatial impression and also for making it easy to become accustomed to wearing the VR headset.

VR and 3D in PD

The mixed reality system optimises interaction between individual devices and components, such as the real-time model, VR headset and tracking. To move the experience beyond merely visual sensations, BMW employs a reusable interior assembly produced using rapid prototyping to enhance perception and integrates precise acoustic inputs – for example the sound of an engine – to further intensify the immersive experience.

A development engineer has the impression of sitting in a real car in a real driving situation and can assess features accordingly: all-round visibility during an urban drive, for example, or the legibility or positioning of a display depending on the viewing angle or seat position.

The use of real-time and VR technologies is being driven by the auto industry. The features that we are adding to the platform are driven by the vehicle manufacturers – they are defining the parameters” – Simon Jones, Director, Unreal Engine Enterprise

Developers worldwide will ultimately be able to take part in the design decision-making process from their own individual offices and it is also possible to scale the system to many different developer workstations, the initial vehicle designs being approved using the 3D headsets prior to physical build and testing.

BMW notes in an understated fashion that, “the system already makes it possible to save a great deal of time and effort, especially during the early stages of development”. The impact on future processes and practices will be much greater though, as the company explains: “VR investigations could previously only be conducted at costly specialised facilities. By incorporating consumer electronics, the developers gain an unprecedented degree of flexibility, because any modifications can be implemented and tested very quickly.”

McLaren has spoken more about its relationship with the enterprise division of Epic Games in a jointly-produced film, and also outlines the possibilities for the use of advanced VR and mixed reality tools in the product development process.

“Our current design process is probably much like any other supercar manufacturer,” explains McLaren Automotive Design Operations Manager, Mark Roberts. “We use a PowerWall throughout, and we can show the car at full-size on the deck at the correct ride height so we can get a very realistic understanding of what it is going to look like on the road.

Make believe

“The next stage is to turn the digital models into a physical model – we usually do 40% scale models to start with before scaling up to full-size when we have chosen the single theme. The key for me is believability. If we believe in what we see, we can make the right decision and the high-fidelity, real-time rendering ability of Unreal Engine is giving us that believability.”

McLaren Automotive Chief Designer, Robert Melville, is also enthusiastic about both the current and future role of VR in McLaren’s design processes: “VR enables you to look at the execution of detail areas without having to make separate desktop models. You can check the gap and flush and size of radiuses,” he says. “You can also sit inside the interior environment, immerse yourself – and by combining VR with some physical elements we can check reach zones and head clearances.”

The advantage that VR brings goes beyond simply being able to validate structure and feature position and on to a much more fundamental level, as Melville acknowledges: “By making the design process leaner and buying us more time, the technology clearly opens up more opportunity for innovation, more discussion with suppliers and therefore the opportunity to bring a better, more advanced product to market.”

And as vehicle manufacturers realise the advantages that real-time and VR technologies will bring, it is they that are accelerating the pace of change, not the technology providers. “The use of real-time and VR technologies is being driven by the auto industry,” says Jones. “The likes of BMW and McLaren are now using Unreal Engine and it’s becoming a crucial part of their design validation. The features that we are adding to the platform are driven by the vehicle manufacturers – they are defining the parameters.”

One certainty is that the parameters will continue to change, with the ambition of vehicle manufacturers in this technological arena limited only by their ability to embrace the opportunities offered by an all-encompassing digital development process. For its part, Epic sees Unreal Engine as an enabling technology and its Enterprise division as the problem-solving partner for BMW, McLaren and others with similarly demanding approaches to uncompromised product delivery to market. “How far they want to go – and how fast – is really up to them,” concludes Jones.

 

This article appeared in the Q3 2016 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.

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