The Digital Engineering & Test Centre provided the most eye catching presence at last month’s VR Show, where, together with McLaren Automotive and other affiliates, we exhibited applications for gaming developers to find new markets in high-end automotive engineering and manufacturing.
McLaren provided two of the most sculpturally pleasing and desirable car designs currently imaginable, as well as a sit-in ‘tub’ demo of virtual reality (VR) for helping personalise interior trim for the unique tastes of potential car buyers.
On the first (VIP, industry and press) day of the show, held from 20 to 22 April at the Business Design Centre, Islington, DETC also staged the VR Automotive Conference, that challenged developers to investigate Some newly emerging and real world opportunities for immersive technologies.
The gaming industry, in particular, was challenged to apply its prodigious record for innovation to automotive design, not just of vehicles but also to help the sector quicken its development and manufacturing processes.
Positioned right at the entrance of the VR Show, DETC and McLaren demonstrated examples of virtual manufacturing assembly lines and virtual showrooms.
Majenta was also represented on the stand to talk about its work using immersive technologies, not just in automotive but also in the construction industry.
Through the lens of the recent press launch of Jaguar’s i-PACE, James Watson (Global Client Director of Imagination) advised marketers to be sure to avoid using VR in a gimmicky way. In this case study of immersive technology for product marketing, Imagination introduced JLR’s concept electric vehicle using 66 VR headsets to simultaneously reveal the new design to trade press in controlled settings in Los Angles and London, to be further revealed using what he described as ‘social VR’.
According to James, “The choice of media has to go hand-in-hand with the narrative”, meaning the story must be created in VR not just delivered in VR, must be clear in what it is trying to achieve and to be sure, above all, “to ask whether the concept is better in VR and unique to VR”.
Tanya Laird of Digital Jam then led an interesting debate that broadened applications of immersive technology from marketing and sales applications to some more foundational processes in design and manufacturing.
For an industry audience roughly equally up of VR and automotive industry practitioners, The DETC Automotive Panel explored opportunities for immersive technology in the sector. Kevin Rampersad, Research Manager at DETC; Alan Rankin (Business Development Manager at EyeKandy); Nick John (Industrial Design and Visualization Manager at Majenta Solutions); Mike Rosam (Technology Strategy & Innovation, McLaren Automotive); and James Watson (Global Client Director, Imagination) were also asked to speculate on future developments and disruptive factors.
Speaking for DETC, Kevin Rampersad pointed beyond the more immediately obvious openings of applying immersive technologies.
“Primarily, for the automotive sector, we’re looking at using digital technologies to shorten the delivery time for vehicles to halve the time and double the value through digital tools and technologies”.
“We’re looking at how we can quicken delivery of models to market, from design to manufacture.”
“There’s a lot of ways immersive technologies can be utilised, such as in marketing and after sales, from showrooms to vehicle maintainers, but we’re focusing on the opportunities in manufacturing and design.”
VR for marketing
However, there was no getting away from the attraction of VR for inciting consumer interest. Nick John of Majenta Solutions noted a ‘dramatic’ decline in reported footfall within car showrooms over the last 10 years, meaning “…there has to be a way to help potential buyers understand the vehicle they could be purchasing in the short time they’ve come to the showroom. At the same time the number of variants of vehicles is increasing. So, I see the opportunities for immersive technologies in showrooms only increasing.”
Within McLaren, Mike Rosam reported an even split in executive attention for immersive technologies between their use for design and manufacture compared for enhancing the customer experience – and pointed to the appeal within the sales environment of McLaren’s examples on the Automotive Showcase, that showed off a 3D simulator and a 3D configurator (that will be showing up in dealerships and its online properties).
“Later this year we’re going to be rolling out virtual reality 3D configurators because the buying experience is very visceral and we want customers to be able to come into the showroom and specify, to a fine level of detail, every aspect of their vehicle and enjoy that experience.”
Alan Rankin described how EyeKandy sees the task as facilitating the consumer to experience VR. “EyeKandy provides a facility for the consumer at home to use their smartphone or computer to get involved in VR and make use of additional tools. The other thing it provides for the manufacturer through the sales channel is the ability to capture what is interesting for people, when they’re looking at assets of VR, such as what elements they’re clicking on, and dwell time, that makes it more compelling for them to book a test drive or visit a showroom”.
“The other thing you can then do is embed codes that can drive consumers to the store, that then can be used, for example, to upgrade the type of material.”
Bridging gaps between the automotive and gaming industries
The opportunities for collaborations between talent in the gaming and automotive industries might not at first seem obvious but it was a market opportunity that DETC’s Kevin Rampersad wanted to highlight.
“It’s because the gaming industry is prodigiously driving innovation. If you look at the gaming designs that are released onto the market, there’s a release every 4 to 6 months as opposed to engineering packages that releases updates every 12 to 16 months or so.”
“What’s more, gaming products are doing stuff that the engineering products can’t do, that are not agile enough to handle some of these applications.”
“That is what is driving the change in the engineering sector and we’re looking to take expertise for innovating from gaming and adopt it for the automotive space.”
“Looking purely at a manufacturing perspective, if we can create a game that includes all the elements of a manufacturing system, we can outsource, or crowdsource it. So, instead of five engineers you could have five thousand working on solving that one particular problem but in a shorter time.”
“What you then have is a platform where you can crowdsource developments, that the manufacturing companies can only benefit.”
“Normally vehicle design to manufacture takes 5 years with any large OEM. Using it this way we can probably drop that down by half.”
“Collaboration is starting to take place but I would like to see a lot more of it and I’d like to encourage gaming companies to get involved; to come meet with the automotive sector and see what possibilities there are for engaging.”
“One of the initiatives I’m working on is called FactorySIM, creating a gaming platform that has all the complex knowledge and embedded intelligence of a real manufacturing plant. If we can create such an environment that is in the form of a game you then have a tool that is fast and flexible that can be deployed on the desktop, that can look at how to design a factory in a far easier and quicker way.”
Mike Rosam also sees the automotive software market as ripe for disruption, and the gaming industry as well positioned to take advantage.
“At the moment the incumbents in CAD and the finite element analysis companies sell a software package at a high cost, per seat licensing model, but if you look at something like Unreal Engine that can be used for free there’s huge disparity between the norm and what’s possible – so why can’t we go out and access more tools on demand as and when we need them.”
“There are huge opportunities for software developers to create apps that automotive companies can use in the development process, in the manufacturing process and the sales process.”
“We’re looking for better software and VR is an enabler to reduce our costs. Not necessarily from a software perspective as we save our money in the laying down of capital for tooling prototype parts. Ford, for example, spends almost a billion dollars a year on prototype components.”
“They’re not necessarily looking to reduce the cost of the software per se, but overall development process costs will be significantly reduced by working in more agile, collaborative environments that are very comparable to the digital world.”
“We’ve benchmarked ways of working with digital companies and we bring that in and work out how we can leverage that environment, culture and structure in an automotive environment.”
Looking to the future the panel predicted advances in mixed reality such as use of haptic technologies for advancing the immersive experience – as well as collaborative VR, more effective use of sensor data, and artificial intelligence – as well as vehicle autonomy.
DETC’s Kevin brought the debate back to manufacturing, “I think it’s going to be around improving the bi-directly communications between the virtual and the real world – to the point where we can effectively create ‘digital twins’ that represent a realistic view of manufacturing systems.”
“It’s starting to get bi-directional but I’d like to see a lot more interaction with tools: toolkits built that can take information from inside that VR environment and actually apply to real-world manufacturing settings.”
“We’re starting some initiates that are going to be looking at that but there’s a lot of work and lot of data that needs to be collated and referenced, but I think it’s an essential part in terms of mimicking the real with the virtual that we get that bi-directional communication working”.