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Life, but not as we know it: why Virtual Reality is a game-changer.

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Virtual Reality (VR) is taking the automotive industry – and others – by storm. From design and development to manufacture, training and sales, its impact is being felt throughout the supply chain.

Like Artificial Intelligence, VR is what we might call a tent-pole technology, the equivalent of a halo brand in the pantheon of new and future tech that is changing the way industry works at the most fundamental level.

Chiefly renowned for its adoption by the airline industry where it is used to train pilots in the relative safety of flight simulation, VR is also associated in the public imagination with immersive gaming. But like AI, it has bled into other industries as its wider applications and potential to save time, money and effort becomes clearer.

Naturally I’ve been especially interested to witness how VR has impacted the automotive industry. But its efficiency-giving qualities could enhance the productivity of industrial environments and the workflow of potentially any workspace.

Furthermore, there’s a subplot to the story of VR that takes us full circle back to the relationship between VR and gaming, and makes it especially interesting for me. As we discussed in an earlier blog on this site, new technologies create a demand for a new kind of talent. And automotive tier two suppliers who build or use VR now compete with gaming companies, hoping to persuade would-be game designers to come and work for them instead.

Design and Development

McLaren Automotive is justifiably proud of its use of VR design technology created by software company Vector Suite. The software is a leap forward from traditional CAD and frees a designer from the limits of the 2D world, allowing them to flip between 2D and a more immersive experience that fast-tracks the design process.

Released by their VR goggles into a virtual world, a designer is no longer restricted to a theoretical, 2D assessment of how it might feel inside a vehicle interior of their own design. Instead they can be fully immersed in the vehicle they are creating. And they can apply the same experience to any aspect of car design.

This has significant implications for the effectiveness of ergonomics as it means OEMs can eliminate any guesswork in their 2D modelling, removing the need to model and remodel a car and continually refine it until it is fully fit for purpose.

For their investment, drivers of luxury cars have a right to expect a well thought-out vehicle interior. The appeal of the Bentley marque includes a superior driver experience, so the in-car tech must be not just attractive and well-made, but arranged to optimise user comfort and ease.   

Bentley has invested into the collaborative project STRIVE: Simulation Tools for Rapid Innovation in Vehicle Engineering. The marque has made use of a VR Cave at the University of Liverpool’s Virtual Engineering Centre (a STRIVE partner), where designers can use augmented reality to replicate the experience of driving and operating a car, testing ergonomics to the finest detail.

The success of this experiment has been such that Bentley now hosts its own STRIVE suite, which has the potential to create significant efficiencies. The key investment is in the VR technology and the talent required to deploy it.

Then there is the field of vehicle dynamics, the study of how a vehicle reacts to driver inputs, and an important science for Formula One competitors. McLaren Applied Technologies, who we have seen is a leading user of VR simulator systems, gained much of its expertise in the field from its activity in Formula One.

When the Motorsport’s authorities banned in-season testing in a bid to prevent spiralling costs, competing manufacturers had to find new ways to gain competitive advantage from testing data. The answer was to be found in VR. McLaren’s boffins developed a moving simulator system that allows drivers to virtually drive around a circuit at high speed, experiencing conditions so realistic that they can cause motion sickness in hardened motorsport professionals.

Formula One technology has now filtered down into road car development, where McLaren is well-positioned to facilitate rapid vehicle innovation through VR, potentially saving thousands of hours of real-world testing.

Manufacturing efficiency

The potential time, cost and energy-saving qualities of VR are plain. The technology can now be applied to manufacturing where it can be deployed to enhance efficiencies in the movements of workers, the design, placement and order of assembly lines and workstation automation and ergonomics.

If you want to set up a factory and optimise the flow of work in it, what better way to do this than to experience, review and test it in VR before you take a single, wasteful step in the real world?

The same is true when working out how a new component will fit into an existing design system – say a piece of technology in a machine or a vehicle. Virtual assembly can serve as a testing ground where faults and weaknesses are identified, at a fraction of the time and labour costs involved in really making the mistakes.

A safe training aid

And of course, the “safe-test” space that VR creates applies to training people, too. VR can be used to train people for situations where on-the-job learning is difficult at the novice stage. As well as being favoured by the airline industry, VR is used in the oil and gas sector where an individual wearing goggles and sensor gloves can learn how to rig an oil pipeline or high voltage battery component in total safety.

VR and sales

VR is even used in the automotive industry to streamline the consumer purchasing process. If you buy a car from Hyundai, you needn’t go to a showroom or interact with a salesperson unless you want to. The brand was the first volume automobile OEM to adopt an element of VR in its website, allowing prospective customers to fully immerse themselves in and configure their car of choice before ordering it to be delivered – all without any human interaction at all, unless they choose it.  

VR and the search for talent

A lot of the tier 2 suppliers associated with autonomous vehicles – those who manufacture not the cars themselves but the software that will drive them – are hiring talent more familiar to the gaming industry: computer science graduates and code masters who might previously have worked for gaming companies.

The same is now true for VR companies who are themselves part of the huge supply chain and collaborative effort that is the modern vehicle industry. They also need coders, who need to be won over from the gaming industry by lucrative pay and game-changing challenges.

VR is a fascinating technology, but, significant though it is, I can’t help but feel we’ve only just begun to discover its potential. As with so many of the technologies the team at G&H recruits for, half the fun of working with our skilled candidates is learning, almost daily, about the latest applications and innovations at the forefront of these exciting fields.