Ford’s Using Augmented Reality to Design Better Cars

Augmented reality is just starting its long-anticipated march into humanity’s eyeballs, but if you don’t plan on dropping $1,000 for an iPhone X, you can still reap the benefits. All you need is a new car.

Ford has started equipping its designers with HoloLens, the augmented reality technology Microsoft is rolling out for commercial and industrial applications. Outfitted with the holographic goggles, these Detroit denizens can stand in front of clay models of cars and see 3-D vehicle elements digitally overlaid onto them, so they can quickly evaluate and alter new car designs.

“This ability to mesh digital and physical worlds together is for us the future of designing products,” says Craig Wetzel, Ford’s manager of design technical operations. “It also places our engineers and designers in the same space, speeding that relationship along, as well.”

Augmented reality technology has already begun wrapping its tentacles around the auto industry. Genesis uses it in its digital owner’s manual. Jaguar provides virtual test drives through an AR app. Porsche engineers use the tech on the Panamera assembly line.

Wearing wireless headgear with a built-in Windows 10 computer, the designers can experience any given feature as a real world driver would. Is the side mirror is too large? Just pinch your fingers to shrink it. The front bumper’s too obtrusive? Rein it in with a wave of your hand. Ready to fix something else? Cycle through design elements with a flick of the finger.

For now, Ford is only using Hololens to work on details, not in the early design phase where the vehicle first takes shape. (Clay modeling is here to stay.) The goal is to deploy the tech where it can deliver the most concrete benefits. Ford thinks this technology will make the new-vehicle design process more efficient, specifically when it comes to integrating pesky engineering requirements, since AR-equipped teams in offices around the world can see the designs simultaneously.

“In today’s world, my design team might make a mirror that we have to digitally render, send to the engineers so they can study it, and then make changes based on their feedback,” Wetzel says. “That takes time, and we find ourselves out of phase there a lot. But placing engineering and design in the same space, a process we call co-creation, streamlines that interaction.”

Those potential time savings could even lead to better final products. “It will streamline the design process and allow designers more time to fine tune their concepts for their target market,” says Antonio Borja, who runs the Academy of Art University’s School of Industrial Design, in San Francisco. “AR will also create much more intuitive designs, as the concepts will be evaluated in real time as they are being developed.”

For Microsoft, it’s a chance to deliver on its broader vision of creating technology with which humans naturally interact. So far, so good. Ford’s design process is more efficient, and the work is more pleasant. “It is more natural and humanistic, in a way,” Wetzel says. “It’s how we would want to create. It’s also more fun—both fun to use and fun to share with others.”

And for you, it just might mean a better daily drive to your non-augmented reality office.

Design dispatches from an automotive future

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