Virtual reality, better known as the abbreviation VR, allows its users to put on a head-mounted display (HMD) to enter and experience various computer-generated virtual realities. In the past, technological limitations made VR applicable only to areas such as games and leisure, but more recently the technology has been used in medicine and military as well as in various industrial sectors.
Of course, the automotive industry, too, is using VR: it is mainly used in design refinement and verification, during which the advantages of the VR environment facilitate the process. This is not a new story by any means. After all, there already is a mass-produced car that has undergone such a process: the recently released 3rd-generation Kia K5.
The 3rd-generation K5 was built through the cutting-edge VR design quality assurance process. VR quality assurance essentially creates a digital car in a VR environment to facilitate quality checks. Putting on the HMD, engineers can use the controller to “slice” the cross-sections of the vehicle to explore the parts inside and their assembly. Before the advent of the VR design quality assurance, engineers had to cut the vehicle open in reality to do the same. The VR design quality assurance process thus makes it easier than ever to evaluate the essential factors for vehicle quality: structure and the assembly of the components, the sense of space and visibility from the driver’s seat, and the ease of operation of all parts by the driver.
The greatest advantage of the VR design quality assurance process is that it facilitates quick identification and resolution of problems, which in turn results in a higher quality of the vehicle at the end process. We discussed the contributions of the VR design quality assurance process with the Hyundai Motor Group’s Digital Car Verification Team.
Q. What is noteworthy in the K5’s door trim design?
Senior Researcher Park SoonTaek | We started talking about VR in the fourth quarter of 2015, with hopes of applying it to our quality assurance process. We all felt there was a limit to the way we did things, which basically had a big digital model of the car placed on the screen, and we zoomed in and out to discuss the parts. Putting a 3D digital model on a flat 2D screen limited the potential for a more meticulous evaluation process.
But we couldn’t adopt VR right away then. The problem was in the cost, with HMD being incredibly expensive. But thankfully, 2015 was a turnaround point for the tech. A lot of headway has been made in the technology ever since, and HMD has now become cheap, while simultaneously becoming higher-resolution and more lifelike in view. So we felt comfortable applying this technology to our quality assurance process. The 3rd generation Kia K5 is one of the models we put through to the new process for design evaluation.
Q. You talked about the limitation of the old method using digital modeling. What exactly were the limitations?
Researcher Kang KyungHoon | People have two eyes, which allow us to perceive depth. But putting the digital model on the screen basically takes away that capacity. On a screen, the digital model gives no sense of depth, space, or perspective. When there were no alternatives, we had to put up with these limitations in design evaluation. We were constantly plagued by distortions in the screening processes, though, and even after creating the prototype vehicle, problems manifested because of the on-screen, 2D evaluation process.
With VR, such issues disappear. We could finally evaluate the digital model with a sense of depth and space, and the VR experience very closely approximates the reality of viewing a car. A big chunk of the problems stemming from the old method was addressed as a result.
Q. Could we hear more about the specific ways in which the VR design quality assurance process is superior to the old process?
Researcher Yoo GeonHo | One of the biggest problems of the old process was that we often discovered problems too late. It goes like this: using the digital modeling on-screen, the design quality is affirmed. Then the problem surfaces during the actual production of the car. At that point, though, the whole mass-production cycle is already in gear, so big changes in design are impossible. Even if it were possible, it would be extremely time-consuming and costly.
The VR design quality assurance process helps us accomplish the essential goals of the assurance processes: identify and fix the design problems before we get into the final design and start the preparations for mass production. It’s not just that we are verifying the design earlier; we get to more rigorously check and improve the accuracy of the design from the very start. This reduces contingencies like mid- or late-development design overhauls.
Researcher Yoo GeonHo | Beyond that, the ability to overcome physical limitations is another big advantage of the process. Of course, we could cut the digital model and look at the cross-sections before, but the sensory burden of having to translate the information on the screen into an image with depth made the more subtle checks very difficult. Using VR, we can use the controller to cut the vehicle in however many ways we want. The cross-section that opens up allows us to check the assembly and the operation of the individual parts as well. We do many, many such iterations of such processes to assure the design quality of the entire vehicle.
Q. What are the specific checkup points during the VR design quality assurance process?
Senior Researcher Ahn SeongHoo | In basic, the Digital Car Verification Team receives the CAD blueprints and 3D modeling data from various design teams and consolidates them into the modeling of a single digital car. In so doing, we do our first screening for problems in the blueprints we received. Then we use VR to see if the parts were assembled correctly in the digital model, considering structural changes if necessary. The completed digital modeling data are then sent back to the design teams, who do their own checks to see if the parts they designed will function as planned. Their feedback is then reflected in the model.
Then we go through a general marketability evaluation. We add interior/exterior color and texture to the digital model to make it look as close to the real thing as possible, and we start evaluating the quality. Do the parts match well? Are there any visually awkward places? Are the internal switches and controllers placed well and usable? Are there any blind spots in the driver’s field of view? These are some of the questions we would put forth during the marketability evaluation.
Q. With respect to the development of the 3rd-gen K5, were there any specific points at which you were aided by the VR design quality assurance process?
Researcher Kang KyungHoon | The new K5 has a fastback design where the rear windshield appears to cover the bulk of the trunk lid; it breaks new ground for rear glass and lid design. Now, if we had had access only to the old method without VR, the design assurance process would not have been able to review these parts from various angles or at the real eye-level. Because the lid and the rear glass both had their own inclines, the way in which they connected to each other was expected to have a host of problems. So we needed to observe it in a condition that closely approximates reality. VR allowed us to do just that, so we were able to discover the expected issues in time and work them out with the design teams.
Senior Researcher Park SoonTaek | The 3rd-gen K5 profusely adopted metallic or black, high-glossy materials in its interior, particularly near the dashboard and the AVN. They contribute to the general high-quality feel of the interior, but their reflective nature can cause issues when they are exposed to sunlight. So it is necessary to have the vehicle undergo tests on light exposure, recording information like the amount of light reflected or the angles of reflection. Previously, we could only do this after the mock-up model or the prototype is complete. The test was highly reliable as a result, but building a prototype took too long, and the problems found at that juncture could not be instantly resolved.
But VR helped us overcome all these space-and-time constraints—we simply had to place the digital vehicle in a VR environment under the Sun. The evaluator now could get into the virtual car and quite literally see to what degree the reflections from high-glossy or metallic materials impact his view. We could also alter the location of the Sun and the strength of the Sun’s rays, both of which are obviously impossible in real life. Having such ability made our assurance processes more accurate than ever before. The 3rd-gen K5’s interior is littered with minor tweaks that benefited from such VR-aided evaluations.
Researcher Yoo GeonHo | There’s more. The 2nd-gen K5 had its side mirrors on the bottom part of the A-pillars on either side, but the 3rd-gen shifted their position to the doors. This design-structural shift required us to check the new side mirror location’s impact on the driver’s view. This, too, would have required us to build the prototype in the past. But VR allowed us to evaluate the various side mirror positions and the subsequent impact on visibility from the early stages of vehicle development. The digital vehicle ran the virtual highways, inclines, tunnels… and the quick feedback and corrections allowed for a more precise design quality evaluation.
Q. Are the other manufacturers using VR, too?
Senior Researcher Park SoonTaek | Many manufacturers are increasingly using VR in the initial car development stage, but not that many use VR for quality assurance processes like Hyundai. Mainly, our competitors seem to use VR to confirm the layout in the early stages of the vehicle design. Of course, most companies are dedicated to keeping some measure of secrecy in their processes, so we cannot be exactly sure how much, and for what purpose, VR is used there.
Q. In the future, could VR design quality assurance technology completely eliminate the need for the prototype in reality? What’s your vision for the technology’s future?
Researcher Kang KyungHoon | For the processes that we have discussed so far, yes. I think the VR-driven process would ultimately come to not supplement but replace the existing assurance process. We’re developing and calibrating the technology in hopes of getting to that point. In some time, I think we would be able to apply the technology to production/assembly lines to evaluate assembly efficiency. Then we would be able to build much more efficient assembly lines and ergonomic working conditions.
Q. It appears that the VR design quality assurance process helps the manufacturer save time and money. But what do the consumers gain in return?
Senior Researcher Ahn SeongHoo | When in the not-too-distant future VR is used for all stages of car development, I believe the early concept of the car will be able to reach the consumers intact. Right now, the VR design quality assurance process is applied only to the end-stage of the development, and as the process makes the necessary corrections to the car, some of the initial concept or the envisioned design is lost. But if the process is applied from the early going, the situation changes—getting rid of the problems early will have the impact of delivering the design concept in its purest form. That’s a benefit to the consumers, who will get to enjoy a more attractive, high-quality car.
The 3rd-gen K5 was a great example of this. We only used the VR technology for design quality assurance—a mere portion of the entire development process—but doing so already allowed us to come very close to our initial vision of the car. When the VR technology develops further and sees its application to all stages of vehicle development, we expect to be able to build much better and much more complete cars than ever before.