Car design is not made overnight; the concept is set, the direction of the design is established across various parts, and countless trials, errors, and adjustments are reiterated. Many tools and methodologies are present throughout the process. The design is sketched on paper; computers produce digitized sketches and 3D renderings. Sometimes the model is molded by hand from clay, from which digital models are built by computer. In any case, every model built is scrutinized by multiple people who search rigorously for areas of improvement. The finished car, the end-product, has been the result of many such iterations and reiterations.
Until now, that is. A new technological innovation is disrupting the way in which this design process is conducted: VR-assisted car design evaluation. Using VR to assure and perfect the car design quality is one of the cutting-edge technologies being introduced into the automotive industry.
Last March, Hyundai established the world’s largest VR design evaluation facility, where 20 people can simultaneously log on to a VR environment and evaluate the car design. Through this, Hyundai expects to be able to kickstart the virtual development process whereby the entire car design and development will be conducted in virtual reality.
VR-assisted design evaluation transcends the physical limitations of time and space—just by using the controller, the evaluators can alter the car’s material, texture, color, and parts to review both the interior and the exterior design. The digital car can also be placed in any given environment or time to evaluate the design’s fit with the surroundings. The technology is especially useful for large commercial cars, whose sheer size and volume make real, on-site evaluation difficult. But such limitations are easily overcome in a VR environment.
The VR-assisted design evaluation process is currently being applied to the development of many new Hyundai models. Still in the early stages, the process is yet to produce noticeable results, but many mass-produced models and concept cars are undergoing it during production. “Neptune,” a hydrogen-only heavy truck concept unveiled at the end of October, is one such car to have been manufactured via VR-assisted design evaluation. We interviewed the Hyundai Digital Design Team, responsible for building and running the VR-assisted design evaluation process, to discuss car design and VR’s merits.
Q. When did you decide the adopt the VR-assisted design evaluation process?
Senior Researcher Park YoungSoo | We began contemplating the applicability of the process from April 2018. For the past year or so, we experimented with VR in developing many different cars and considered it effective for design evaluation purposes. Consequently, we started building the VR design evaluation facility in the Design Center, which was completed in March. That’s when the VR design evaluation process really began.
Q. What made you consider the VR-assisted process effective enough to warrant this drastic change?
Senior Researcher Choi KyungWon | We have actually used on-screen digital modeling, the kind used for VR-assisted processes as well, for a long time. Since 1996, when we were building Hyundai Tuscany, digital design evaluation has been part of the process. We’d render the car and turn it into a mini-movie to be placed on a large screen. We figured it was more cost- and time-efficient than the clay mock-ups, so we became one of the forerunners in the industry to use digital on-screen models.
But despite that relative efficiency, the existing on-screen digital evaluation had clear limits. As we all know, cars have a large volume. Evaluating that large a thing on a flatscreen is hard to do. We tried multiple different ways to overcome that limitation, such as shooting the car with a stereo camera and reviewing the product with a 3D projector or a 3D TV. But each time, the distortion was so severe as to necessitate searching for a new method.
It was around 2015 when the VR technology became widely commercialized. HMD (Head Mounted Display), prerequisite equipment for using VR, became more advanced and cost-efficient, which allowed us to consider the technology for our design evaluation. To put it simply, the VR design evaluation process moves the existing digital evaluation from flatscreen to a virtual 3D environment. Distortions and perceptual limitations of 2D screens are thus overcome, and the designers can more directly and intuitively evaluate the vehicle design.
Q. Designing a product goes through multiple stages—in what stage does VR come into play?
Park YoungSoo | Right now, only in the evaluation of early designs. But since the process is theoretically applicable to all stages of designing, we’re running some test runs in various stages of design development. The early returns of VR-assisted evaluations have been promising enough for us to be adventurous. We’re trying now to use the process in early product planning, building and completing the prototype design blueprint, clay model evaluation, adjustment, and completion… you name it. All stages of design can potentially be improved by having VR as a tool.
For example, in the initial product planning stage, many relevant teams can congregate and use VR to set a more concrete concept. The old model and the new model can be juxtaposed in VR to facilitate the adjustments of proportions. I mean, doing so is possible in reality too, because all you’d have to do is to set the vehicles side by side. But VR allows us to, say, put one vehicle literally on top of another in an overlay, or zoom into specific parts required for comparison. All these tools facilitate the building of the first digital concept car, about which the designers of the Digital Design Team can exchange feedback in real-time to reach its completion.
Q. One important process of designing a car is evaluating the clay mock-up. Is there a difference between the VR-assisted process and using the clay mock-up?
Researcher Kang SungMook | In one stage of design evaluation, we like to comprehensively review several design proposals before deciding upon the final design. With clay mock-ups, which are quite time-consuming and costly, it is difficult and inefficient to create several models for review. Once they are built, it is difficult also to instantly make changes to the model. That’s why clay mock-ups typically come at the end-stage of the design process.
But using VR, we can see the digital vehicle in full, both the exterior and the interior, from the early stages of the design process. We can also evaluate and make changes by a simple maneuver of the controller. Dozens of design proposals are simultaneously brought up in the VR environment and are reviewed in any arrangement or from any angle—so you can see how the process can be efficient. But more important is our ability to evaluate and impact the design from the early going. That’s where the real cost and time savings lie.
Park YoungSoo | Digital models are increasingly outweighing the clay models in the car design process. It’s not just the cost savings, it’s far more than that. There’s just so much that only digital data can do. From the designer’s perspective, it makes evaluation easier and more effective at so many different levels.
The best thing about the VR-assisted design evaluation process is that we can evaluate and make changes at any time, as long as the digital data is present. Of course, we can’t do the entire process in a VR environment—at least not quite yet—so both VR and on-site evaluations coexist in our process right now.
Q. Beyond just efficiency, then, what are the advantages of the VR-assisted design evaluation process?
Senior Researcher Bae ByoungSang | Overcoming physical limitations is the biggest advantage. As we said, in VR, we can simultaneously bring up dozens of proposals for easy comparison. In reality, not only would we not be able to make mock-ups for every proposal, we would not be able to find a place to place all those vehicles side by side.
Moreover, cars are designed to run the outdoors. So evaluating them beyond the confines of the design lab is tremendously important. Previously, if we wanted to evaluate the car design fit with the outdoor environment, we had to take the mock-up models out of the lab or wait until the first real prototype was finished. With VR, though, we can just import any environment in which to place the digital car. We can also set the time so as to alter the place of the Sun, or even evaluate it at nighttime.
Q. Recently revealed “Neptune,” a hydrogen-only large truck concept, was apparently a product of the VR-assisted design process. Any words on Neptune?
Choi Kyung-Won | Indeed, the VR-assisted process was a big help in creating the Neptune’s design. Typically, large truck designs are very difficult to evaluate because of the sheer volume. Trying to understand its digital model beyond the distortions of the 2D screens or building its clay mock-ups at shockingly high price tags present a lose-lose situation either way. Mock-ups at this size will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take a long time to build, so if we wanted to, say, do simultaneous evaluations of several proposals, we would be looking at price tags that reach millions of dollars. And even when the models are built, the sheer size makes it difficult for designers to have a good sense of space and volume.
VR removes these constraints. For example, we might lower the height of the car in VR to allow the designers an unrestricted view of the truck’s roof. We can also jump in and out of the vehicle freely to review the interior as well, which would be impossible with the clay mock-ups in reality.
But the biggest advantage lies in time. Building a digital model takes so much less time than molding clay. The time saved can be used for creating even more design proposals. In that sense, the VR has a subtle but very real indirect impact on the overall design quality, too, since the time it saves allows us to put more effort into general design quality. That’s how we arrived at Neptune, which frankly looks great.
Q. Despite the advancements in the VR technology, the graphics it renders are still somewhat different from reality. When do you believe such gaps will be mended?
Kang SungMook | I can’t give you the exact time, but it’s really just a matter of time. The VR technology and the HMD equipment will continue to advance. We’ll need an HMD that has a high-enough definition to approximate reality. But again, I think technological advances will ensure that we get there one day.
But even so, I don’t think the VR-assisted process will entirely replace the existing on-site evaluation. The two methods come with their own pros and cons, so they are to supplement each other, at least for the foreseeable future. One big thing that VR can’t do for us is to simulate material texture for touch. For that purpose, we still need reality-based models.
Q. With future developments in mind, will the VR-assisted design evaluation process ever entirely replace the existing process? The VR’s limitations in tactile information seem to be a particular hurdle here.
Park YoungSoo | That’s the dilemma for not just Hyundai but also all other manufacturers. The current VR environment provides only visual information, so understanding the object in other sensory aspects is always a challenge. There is this equipment called “data glove,” which lets its user know where each element is located in the virtual space. But that equipment doesn’t approximate actual tactile stimulation either.
We find it hard to grasp exactly how wearable equipment can be applied to the VR-assisted design evaluation process. We’re really pondering about it. For the time being, though, technological advancement has not been enough to simulate touch, which is obviously important for design evaluation. It will take quite a lot of time before that hurdle can be surmounted.
Q. What benefits can consumers expect from a broader application of this process to Hyundai’s design?
Bae ByoungSang | That’s hard to say right now since the process has been less than a year in use. But one thing I expect is that the VR design evaluation might help connect the manufacturer to the consumer better. For example, we could receive feedback from consumers by revealing the digital VR car to the public. In the VR environment, the consumers would review the vehicle just as our designers would, and their feedback can be quickly reflected in the finished design. Again, the ability of the technology to transcend limitations of space and time will come in handy here. If this arrangement is somehow made, then the consumers will be able to help create the car design that reflects their tastes, which in turn would be a concrete benefit for them.
If we can apply the VR technology beyond just design evaluation to all facets of car development—planning, assembly, manufacturing, performance evaluation—we might be able to create drastic reductions in development time and costs. That’s a long way ahead, we might say. But the Digital Design Team exists, I think, to make that dream come true.