An $800 virtual reality headset is expensive for consumers and gamers. At BMW, the same price translates to inexpensive. The German automaker is introducing a mixed reality system for rapid prototyping of cars in development. It will pair the HTC Vive headset (virtual reality) with developmental styling bucks (physical reality) to speed through early design phases. Add road noise, possibly wind noise, and engineers and designers can feel as if they’re in a physical car driving along the road while still in an R&D building.
By using higher-end consumer-grade VR devices (not just a cardboard box with two eyeholes and a phone-holder clip), BMW is also assured of rapid updates, something high-volume consumer devices are known for. It might even lead to fewer years between new models.
For a company with a market value of $56 billion, the price of headsets in quantities of hundreds is not even a rounding error. BMW sees high-end, high-res consumer 3D headsets having more flexibility. The headsets could also be used at developer workstations as well as in purpose-built test labs with motion tracking sensors, to locate the engineers and developers in relation to real or virtual cars as they look through the steering wheel at the instrument panel, out the windshield at the virtual road ahead, or open the hood to locate the oil dipstick or in the trunk for the location of the battery.
Along with the HTC Vive headset, BMW will use Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 game engine. It’s capable of rendering 90 frames per second, running off high-end gaming PCs, often with overclocked (for however long Intel makes it possible) CPUs, water cooling, dual Nvidia Titan X GPUs and an Intel Core i7 processor. “Further advances are expected in terms of both the headset hardware and software, and these will be evaluated at regular intervals,” BMW said in a statement. That suggests the company would be open to working with whoever has the best headsets and game engines next year and the year after.
In development labs, BMW employs the HTC Vive Lighthouse tracking system: overhead laser emitters to fill the room with invisible light fields picked by sensors on the headset, accurately locating the testers’ heads and the direction they are looking. The coverage field is a square of about 16 feet (5 x 5 meters).
Centered in the test room is a mock-up of a BMW cockpit that is reconfigurable and reusable. To make it seem as realistic as possible, BMW pipes in the noise of BMW engines, the road, and the wind. There are also high-res flat panel displays front and rear so others in the room can see the road ahead or what the engineers are looking at. BMW claims, “This, combined with the VR model enables [testers] to experience the vehicle in different environments. The completely realistic vehicle impression produced by this method is so far unique in the automotive industry.”
Data recorders will measure how far a tester has to stretch to reach switchgear in the center stack, or how well a 5-foot-7 driver, or one who’s 6-foot-5, sees through the windshield. They can see where the steering wheel needs to be located to avoid cutting off the instrument panel. (Our guess is this actually allows BMW to cut off your view of the top of the speedometer and tachometer with a greater degree of precision than competitors, because seemingly nobody gets it right. Yet.)
BMW has been doing the VR thing since the 1990s, the company says. Virtually every automaker has some kind of virtual reality system to speed the prototyping process. In comparison, it’s expensive, and slow (by tech standards) to build full-size clay models of cars, which is how the suits in the company give final sign-off. They want to see the almost-real thing, full size, made of something physical, not floating in space on a pair of goggles. (So far, no 3D-printing full scale styling models, although the odd trade-show car has been produced from 3D-printed parts.)
Ford, for instance, has multiple 3D VR labs around the world, including the hometown facility in Dearborn, Michigan (photo above). The company also employs a VR wand “flashlight” the engineer points at a virtual part of the car to focus attention and generate a close-up. Ford notes VR is useful for visualizing what parts get in the way of other parts when a virtual door closes, or if parked windshield wipers are parked low enough.
BMW says the VR prototyping allows for more trial fits of components — possibly including seats, instrument panels, doors, gearshift levers, LCDs, headliner buttons — in a given period of time, or less time spent overall before moving on to a physical prototype. Competitors will be watching to see if BMW lowers the time between new models and gains a competitive edge. Most high-end European automakers work on seven-year products. The new BMW 7 Series with extensive use of carbon fiber body parts arrived in 2015 (as a 2016 model), following introductions in 2008, 2001 and so on back in history, with mid-life refreshes three or four years in. Japanese automakers turn out completely new models (not refreshes) in as little as four years, more for mainstream than luxury cars.
In competition among themselves to produce the world’s best high-end car among Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, the determinant may not be who has more or better engineers — the playing field is pretty level — but simply: Who shipped most recently? With heavy reliance on electronics technology that seems to get old in a hurry, and automaker reluctance to make navigation systems or radar cruise control an upgradeable part at the dealership, there will be an advantage to the high-end automaker who knocks a year or two off the new-car development cycle. Mixed reality — virtual plus physical reality — could well be a competitive advantage in the near term.