Ford Motor Company’s Virtual Reality Prototyping Reinvents Vehicle Design

by Elizabeth Baron
Manufacturing - Feb 24 2016 - 6 min read

The best guide forward is often to look to the past. That’s why I took inspiration from three very wise people when developing a new virtual reality prototyping platform and lab to inspire better design and global collaboration at Ford.

The first person, Aristotle, famously said: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” That quote reminds me of all the data we collect and interpret—how it must be viewed from the perspective of what it means to the customer who buys and spends time in a Ford vehicle. We need to be constantly mindful to keep that customer at the center of everything we do.

The second wise man, Einstein, said: “There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.” Essentially, everything has to make sense and be in a specific, proper order. There is a way you will see that happening when it is done correctly.

Elizabeth Baron of Ford demoing virtual reality technology
Elizabeth Baron. Courtesy Ford Motor Company.

And finally, Vitruvius rounded out my inspiration by saying: “Beauty is produced by the pleasing appearance and good taste of the whole and by the dimensions of all the parts being duly proportioned to each other.” When something is right and it works, there is a natural symmetry and way of understanding that intention.

The quotes from these three monumental individuals provided much of my own guidance for the development of the Ford Immersive Vehicle Environment (FIVE). Four years ago, the Ford team was viewing a customer’s perspective on a 46-inch TV using a pre-viz tool. The new FIVE, which uses Autodesk VRED 3D-visualization software, provides amazing realism in a virtual space and enables us to look at engineering, design, ergonomics, and many other disciplines in a holistic manner.

Now we truly experience virtual reality for car design, donning VR headsets instead of interpreting precomputed light and shadow or building expensive physical models. For example, we can hold a real steering wheel and then add other key components and switches in the physical world, then match the physical world to the virtual world. That way, when you reach for a switch, you feel it physically and see it virtually as a beautiful, properly rendered virtual vehicle. You can truly sense the proportion and design theme and feel the proper placement of interior controls in a vehicle.

But why did Ford need FIVE? And how is it helping our design and development process? It starts with the individual—not just the customer, but the developers, engineers, and designers, too.

Virtual reality prototype testing in action at Ford
Inside the FIVE lab. Courtesy Ford Motor Company.

Understanding Physical and Visual Cues for VR Car Design.

For FIVE, we needed to not only create a compelling virtual experience but also include knowledge of how light and shadow play together and how our brains pick up both visual and physical cues. My husband is a woodworker; he once told me how you can feel a rough spot in the wood that you might not be able to see. That’s really important. FIVE had to provide for both the physical world and the virtual world, as things are not always represented properly by the mathematical data itself. Our perception and our reality may not experience the same thing the same way.

FIVE also allows the perception of reality to be altered. This enables me and others to experience the car from the perspective of a taller man or a shorter woman. Now, I can see through their eyes what it’s like to be in a certain vehicle and from their viewpoints. So it is a universal reality; it’s just not mine.

Collaboration Is the Key to the Design Engine.

FIVE fosters an amazing level of collaboration. We can have people on different continents immersed in the same model at the same time. We talk, understand exactly what’s going on, and determine the vehicle health from many different disciplines.

Watch Elizabeth Baron speak about the future of virtual and augmented reality at Autodesk’s Design Night Detroit: Fast Lane to the Future.

We’re not just looking at engineering integrity or study results in a spreadsheet that tells us whether we’re red, green, or yellow for certain issues. We can easily determine status and understand if we need to make corrections. That means we have combined the engineering practice and the voice of customer. We’re always looking at something from someone’s perspective, so we can bring the customer way up front, look at it all the way through, and iterate.

We can also look at variation and vehicle appearances at any point in time in our product-development process, which allows us to embed our manufacturing process in a compelling design. We have the ability to switch out alternatives, and it empowers everyone across the globe to collaborate in a way that is secure, responsive, and in real time.

Where Design and Engineering Converge.

Ford is a huge global company, and now we’re expanding the amount of communication and the way we’re doing it with FIVE. An artist who has spent his or her life making beautiful forms and compelling shapes that are strong or sexy or cool can now talk to an engineer who is a body-structure person and is worried about how a vehicle will perform with all of the conditions it needs to work under.

Demonstration of Ford virtual reality technology
Elizabeth Baron demonstrating FIVE. Courtesy Ford Motor Company.

So the artist and the engineer can have a conversation and communicate in a way that is extremely effective and insightful, despite being two people who are worlds apart as far as their mental models. The FIVE environment has provided them both with something they can relate to and understand. Via VRED, Ford can get the right data to the right people in the right geography and in the right context.

It’s changed our culture. All of these people from different teams are looking at things from a different mind-set. In the past, we would be sitting at a conference table reviewing PowerPoint. And it’s not really socially acceptable to get up from your chair and go ask someone else a different but related question in the middle of a meeting.

But with FIVE, we can pretty much do that. We get in there, and if I want to go talk to Joe, I just go over and say: “Hey, check that out. Is this area a concern?” We have a culture change that has been really profound in providing a new communication paradigm and has done a lot to further team building and the way we work.

This is something I really didn’t anticipate, and I think it’s fantastic. It just keeps growing. Every day, I come in and walk by the lab, and I’m so thrilled that this is going on. The real power of FIVE is that it’s holistic. It brings everyone together, and everyone can understand the final product, which is a beautiful vehicle we produce. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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