Simon Jones

Simon Jones

From engineering and styling to marketing and retail, real-time visualisation and Virtual Reality continue to demonstrate their potential to bring surprising changes to many functions within the automotive industry. We talked to Simon Jones, who is director of Unreal Engine Enterprise, the company that develops the core technology driving this innovation, to find out how the technology is being used and where we go from here.

Would you set the scene please by telling us how real-time and VR is used today?

The term 'Virtual Reality' can be interpreted widely, but currently it largely defines a system that allows a user to feel and operate in a digital world, as they might in the real world.  The phrase real-time (rendering) refers to technology that creates images for the user on the fly, rather than pre-created (pre-rendered) ahead of time.

Virtual Reality will be familiar to many of us, but not many have experienced the latest, state-of-the-art systems. Done well, VR is immersive, putting the viewer directly into a scene. At its heart is a real-time 'engine' that allows developers to create virtual worlds, with users immersed in these worlds using a headset that tracks their movement in real and digital space and ensures the experience is as real as possible. Applications range from experiential sales and marketing applications aimed at the consumer, to tools with accelerate design and engineering processes that address a broad range of issues such as model proliferation, integration of radical new technologies and the challenges presented by global markets.

The same 'engine' can also be used to create real-time visualisation applications that are not strictly VR as they don't require a headset, but which in all other ways create a virtual world that the user can explore in real-time on a screen. With more and more people's lives now focussing around smartphones, tablets and online interaction, this is the beginning of a significant shift in the relationship with the end user.

For engineers and designers, both techniques allow models to be reviewed and layers to be peeled away so issues such as manufacturability and packaging can be explored. With VR you can develop and evaluate more configurations more quickly and greatly reduce the number of physical prototypes, which are costly and slow to build and iterate.

In marketing, real-time visualisation was first used to help customers experience the actual project they would like to buy but also to allow rapid creation of digital materials allowing film and other promotional materials to be created and distributed – especially via content-hungry social media – often well before there was a physical vehicle to 'shoot'. That's now moved a big step further as the marketing specialists and development agencies have learnt how to take full advantage of this new medium, creating new types of user engagement campaigns:  Jaguar's recent and highly successful #FeelWimbledon VR experience, which used Unreal Engine to take the user onto Wimbledon's centre court, is a good example of this as it was many users' first experience with VR and allowed Jaguar to sync the 'technology' message in their marketing.

The same is true across many other disciplines; for example ergonomics, where VR allows faster, more detailed research than can be achieved with physical models. In areas like active safety and automated driving where entirely new user interfaces must be developed and validated, VR allows more options to be tested and refined more quickly.

BMW recently released information on how they are using VR in the design process. Do you see this as one of the major application areas?

Yes, we do, and in fact the BMW system is also built using the Unreal Engine technology platform and many other vehicle manufacturers are taking a similar course. BMW can simulate drives through a city while testing the all-round view of the surroundings or whether a display is poorly legible or awkward to reach depending on the viewing angle or seat position. They have acknowledged that this technology 'makes it possible to save a great deal of time and effort, especially during the early stages of development.'

When using the system, the development engineer has the impression of sitting in a real car in a real driving situation. That's because the BMW implementation is actually Mixed Reality, moving the experience beyond visual sensations to include physical interactions. The engineer sits in a traditional vehicle buck that includes all relevant interior components, with variable hardware manufactured using rapid prototyping. Other components, user interfaces and the surrounding environment are generated in Virtual Reality and displayed using a commercially-available headset.

BMW makes the point that this is not expensive. All that is needed is a high-end video-game class personal computer and some off-the-shelf VR hardware. The cleverness is in the visualisation technology and the way that it is employed by the system developers.

Another important aspect of the BMW system that I believe indicates how VR is changing design processes is the degree to which it facilitates global collaboration. With a virtual or real-time model, colleagues around the world can contribute to reviews, evaluating and even optimising the model in real-time, without having to travel.

A lot of the discussion around automotive applications of Real-Time and VR is focussed on car configurators. Are these simply a better way to do the same thing or are they indicating a new direction?

Gone is the day when a customer was happy with a printed brochure.  The iPhone generation expects more.  Many car configurators are still not rendered in real-time or with high fidelity graphics and not being real-time they can't offer the level of interactivity that today's customer demands. That substantially limits their ability to represent the product accurately and limits the ability to up-sell premium packages. The next generation of configurators will render the images in real-time, building vehicle models from CAD data and representing them with such high fidelity that the user can experience the textures of the different materials.

A good quality real-time system solves all of this by using existing CAD data to create a single model that can be configured and explored in real-time. When the customer selects the premium leather, he or she can open the door and see the soft texture and the quality of the stitching. Vehicle manufacturers are already reporting significantly higher option fits for vehicles sold using today's best real-time technology.

The current state-of-the-art is ably represented by a system developed by Rotor Studios for Toyota Motor Corporation Australia. Built on Unreal Engine 4 and already installed at approaching 300 dealerships, it allows customers to specify and explore their vehicle on a large, high-resolution screen at the dealership. What makes the Toyota system so visionary is that it goes beyond its role as a configurator to begin to explore ways in which the experience can help build understanding and desire. When considering the need to specify a new active safety technology, for example, the customer can view an animation of how it works. When exploring the car's engineering, the customer can reveal the impact protection structure and learn how it will help protect his family. The Toyota 360 project is world-leading as it combines a very complex product range in a simple-to-use customer experience and Toyota Australia has rolled it out to their whole national dealer network.

This new generation of car configurators are an interesting area because the opportunities they present are only just starting to be explored. With the knowledge that builds passion, customers can become brand ambassadors. Looking further ahead, imagine families gathered at home to specify their new car, opening the doors, taking their own seat inside, experiencing premium options, peeling off the body panels to explore the technology. Then when they have a specification they are proud to share, posting it on their social media to discuss with friends and family. Not only does that create much deeper customer engagement, it also greatly increases the brand reach into aligned audiences.

You have also mentioned engineering, styling and marketing. Will this lead to proliferation of VR models within each organisation?

The opportunities that VR presents are now thoroughly proven across so many disciplines that most vehicle manufacturers are thinking about how to join them up, to both reduce cost and to ensure consistency. It's not a big step because the best real-time applications, such as the configurator that we're working on with McLaren, already create models almost entirely from CAD data supplied by the vehicle engineering function.  We're working closely with several OEMs to develop processes that allow the CAD model to be shared and to be automatically updated when the vehicle is refreshed.

Do VR applications need costly hardware to run?

That's another area where the technology is advancing quickly. A year ago the answer would have been yes, but now you can run a professional VR application on a powerful laptop computer. Unreal Engine is designed to be extremely efficient, which means it reduces the demands on hardware. The high-end graphics cards needed are still relatively expensive in desktop terms, so being able to use one, rather than two or three, also makes a huge difference.

As an example of today's state-of-the-art, BMW's Mixed Reality system is built on Unreal Engine 4 to enable stable rendering of 90 frames per second while achieving photo-realistic quality. The computations are performed using high-end gaming computers with water-cooled, overclocked components including Intel Core i7 and two Nvidia Titan X graphic cards. That's hardware that is readily available at many specialist retailers.

You are the first director of Unreal Engine Enterprise. Tell us what this is please and why you believe it is breaking new ground?

As with pretty much every visualisation platform, Unreal Engine was originally created for games development, in this case by Epic Games, one of the world's largest and most successful games publishers. They noticed that the platform was being used for a growing range of complex B2B and B2C applications with a high proportion in the auto industry, including systems developed for BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, McLaren and Toyota. Even NASA is using it – they have the International Space Station modelled in VR to train astronauts.

That led to the decision to create Unreal Engine Enterprise, which we believe is the first major VR and real-time engine supplier anywhere in the world that is structured specifically to support the companies that develop business (in our language, Enterprise) applications. Our model is not just technology transfer: we also bring a collaborative approach that will accelerate development. For example, we have a partner technology manager who is dedicated to finding new ways to do things using technology transferred from other industries and other specialist suppliers.

In just over six months we've seen amazing work in the automotive arena, featuring Ford, GM, McLaren, Toyota, Tesla, BMW, Daimler, Audi, Jaguar Land Rover, VW, Peugeot and many more. The vehicle manufacturers that are taking VR seriously are already reporting improvements in their development processes, reductions in late-stage design changes, increased vehicle sales and more sales of high-value options. The technology already exists to make these benefits highly accessible. As one developer said, 'it's just a question of having the vision to see what's possible'.

More: Automotive Megatrends