Ford Taps Oculus Rift For Future Automobile Designs

Virtual reality was never just for video game nerds.

When Oculus VR first launched its mind-bending (and surprisingly inexpensive) Rift virtual reality goggles, video game nerds drooled over the possibilities. Imagine how it could revolutionize the experience, say, driving cars in games like Need For Speed or Grand Theft Auto? That perspective, now, seems shortsighted. For Oculus VR is actually helping engineers at Ford build cars in real life.

Fast Company recently got a chance to play around with the type of rig Ford's team is using in Detroit. The setup, created in collaboration with motion-capture technology firm Vicon, enables the car giant to rapidly prototype and evaluate vehicles in a virtual setting using Oculus Rift. More significantly, it demonstrates the technology's potential beyond video games, from applications in medical and military fields to architecture and, yes, even automotive design. It's one reason why Andreessen Horowitz plowed $75 million into the startup in December, recognizing its mainstream professional applications.

Video courtesy of Ford

When engineers at Ford put on Rift's head-mounted display, they'll be transported to a virtual environment, where they can explore an automobile's design in a 3-D world. Using a handful of overhead motion-capture cameras, the system tracks a user's position and orientation, so when a user moves around in the physical world, his or her viewpoint moves accordingly in the digital world. In the simple setup Fast Company witnessed, a chair was positioned in place of a driver's seat. Simply sit down wearing Rift, and it feels as if you're at the steering wheel looking out the windshield. "The idea here is that auto designers can use this type of system to really look at the design of their vehicle in detail, whether its color, material, or finish," says Vicon product manager Warren Lester. "How does it look inside and outside, as well as in different environments and lights?" (Designers and engineers at Ford already use virtual audio interfaces to tune the sounds of engines and exhaust systems.)

According to Lester, Ford already has three similar Rift models in use in Detroit, with plans to replicate the system elsewhere at locations around the world. While it's far from uncommon for automakers to use CAD software (computer-aided design) to develop cars digitally, Oculus VR's inexpensive technology is allowing Ford to do it at a fraction of the price. "The main thing is that this keeps costs down," Lester says. The Rift developer kit costs just $300, though the setup at Ford is significantly more advanced. (Lester estimates a four-camera Vicon rig using Rift could cost somewhere around $30,000.)

Boasts Lester, "Ford can have a group of designers in Detroit reviewing a model while talking to designers in Cologne and Australia, all immersed in the same world at the same time."

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