The Value of Immersive 3D Automotive Experiences
Oct 30, 2023
A woman crouched down, wearing a VR headset and controllers

Automotive innovators gaining value from real-time, immersive 3D

Experience Automotive Emotion in Action
A car represents a unique blend of advanced technology and consumer desires, and automotive marketing campaigns are tailored to evoke both rational and emotional responses from customers. Auto companies and advertising agencies have become highly adept at showing lifelike driving experiences. Today’s customers have the opportunity to experience a car in a spectacular setting, even before a single unit has been produced.

Line drawing style render of a sports car
Image copyright: Unity

Innovators Taking 3D Beyond the Basics
The innovators are doing even more, gaining value by sharing interactive, real-time 3D experiences across the enterprise and the supply chain. They can create buyer excitement with fully immersive configurators that customers can interactively explore in 3D. They can collaborate on interior designs in global, virtual reality design reviews to innovate and catch errors early. They can analyze the impact of manufacturing engineering decisions on perceived quality by viewing fit and finish in real-time under a variety of lighting conditions. They can even interactively experience airflow simulation results by stepping inside a virtual smoke stream. Or, they can train operators to assemble engines in augmented reality before the line is built and without expensive mockups.

Opportunities Span the Automotive Enterprise

The opportunities are extensive. This eBook examines the benefits along multiple dimensions, including the following:

  1. Marketing and Sales
  2. Product Innovation and Design
  3. R&D and Engineering
  4. Manufacturing Engineering
  5. Training

The eBook shares valuable insights from interviews with industry leaders Ford and Teague, and highlights from a recent industry conference with speakers from Audi, EDAG, and Team One. It concludes with some valuable insights to help auto companies better understand the opportunities and enabling technologies available to help them take advantage of real-time, interactive, immersive 3D.

Automotive OEMs and suppliers must embrace digitalization to survive. Sharing interactive 3D in a vehicle context is the new, digital communications paradigm. It drives benefits that span the automotive enterprise and supply network.

“Immersive real-time 3D gives much better insights because people with different perspectives can communicate about rich data naturally in a common language. That translates into faster time to market and better products.”
ELIZABETH BARON / FORD MOTOR COMPANYVirtual Reality and Advanced Visualization Technical Specialist

Add excitement and efficiency to marketing and sales

Drive Consumer Enthusiasm with Realistic Rendering
The first way many automotive companies leverage high-end rendering is by creating realistic vehicle experiences for customers. OEMs and their agency partners excel at showing very compelling, photo-realistic views of automobiles. They are so good at applying materials, textures, and paints that sometimes it’s hard to tell it’s a rendering. They complete the illusion by adding effects like dust, smoke or fog to add realism and emotion, and use advanced tools to incorporate backgrounds and lighting that casts realistic, high-fidelity shadows and reflections.

Lower the Barriers to Compelling Experiences
Early forays into realistic automotive visualization were expensive and time-consuming. Making them interactive was even harder. Now, companies can create a stunning virtual 3D model of the car directly from existing 3D CAD models instead of handcrafting 3D art. This also allows them to develop 3D early, before mockups, or even for a car that may never be built.

“We need to have an option for customers to really experience their perfect car. In VR, we can do that in a very immersive way. By sitting behind the steering wheel of a car in every configuration imaginable, you give customers a really great opportunity to experience our cars.”
JENS ANGERER / AUDITeam Lead for Human-Computer Interaction, Audio Production Lab

More importantly, reusing real 3D CAD models allows companies to move to real-time renderings that allow customers to interact with the virtual vehicle, explore it, and create their own experiences. For example, companies can create product configurators that place the customer inside a car to configure with the options, colors, and materials they want. Then, they can watch it transform into the car of their dreams and explore it in detail, perhaps down to a working simulation of the entertainment system.

Explore the Benefits

Automotive companies gain important benefits from using real-time 3D in Marketing and Sales, including:

  1. Early availability of imagery, before physical product or prototypes
  2. Reduced cost in developing 3D art
  3. Increased customer engagement with the vehicle
  4. Higher sales
“How can we drive excitement and engagement at our dealerships? How can we bring a car to life that doesn’t physically exist yet? We decided to build the world’s first virtual car showroom… And the response was incredible.”

Increase insight and iteration in product innovation and design

Immerse Yourself in Innovation Experiences

Innovation and design are inherently visual, experiential processes. Realtime rendering allows designers to immerse themselves, their teams, their customers, their suppliers – and maybe even regulators – in an interactive product innovation experience. Immersive 3D changes design from “seeing it” to “experiencing it” in a realistic environment.

Today’s technology allows innovators to communicate ideas visually, in three dimensions, and often at real-life scale. This allows them to explore and share design concepts more fully, from different perspectives, and in different scenarios. It provides a natural way to evaluate different configurations, such as different materials, textures, and finishes, to get designs just right.

Share the Experience

Beyond creating in immersive 3D, designers can collaborate in a visual, contextual perspective, sharing their experience to get input and feedback sooner, catching mistakes or easily testing new options and ideas to improve innovation. For example, people can take early design models and create a virtual or mixed reality experience. One way to do this is to overlay different interior options over a clay model or partial prototype using AR to do A/B testing, then inviting others to join, either physically in a lab or virtually, to walk around it, explore it, and have a natural conversation

“Real-time 3D can reduce cost, like eliminating the need for a $1 million mockup. But cost is less of a driver than being able to quickly iterate to get more time with the customer and a longer time to iterate, continue to refine, and make the design better.”
ERIC KLEIN / TEAGUEDesign Manager, Aviation Studio

Explore the Benefits
Automotive companies gain important benefits from using real-time 3D in product innovation and design, including:

  1. Higher value customer input and feedback
  2. Better informed decisions • Increased time to iterate and explore ideas
  3. Fewer costly errors • Issues and errors discovered sooner
  4. Reduced cost and time required for mockups
Fully rendered sports car
Image copyright: Unity
“We’re using AR and VR experiences in clinics to get customer feedback during the vehicle design and engineering process.”

Add realism and immersion to R&D and engineering

Engage Real-time 3D for Interactive Design Reviews

The value of immersive, real-time 3D doesn’t end at the design phase. Engineering teams have used visualization for a long time for collaboration and design reviews. Immersive, interactive technologies promise to take these to the next level. Interactive technologies hold the key to finding errors or optimizing designs earlier in vehicle development, which saves significant time and money.

Engineers can leverage their 3D CAD models to interactively explore the implications of engineering decisions to get designs right up front. For example, real-time 3D technology can allow an engineer to go inside a complex assembly like a transmission to experience it in ways never before possible. But supporting engineers requires high levels of fidelity to allow interactive exploration, measurements, sectioning, and real-world physics to provide an accurate product understanding. Immersive 3D can also allow engineers from different disciplines to understand the impact of their decisions on others. For example, by being able to interactively interrogate the impact of a late styling change on wire routing.

A futuristic workspace with benches
Image copyright: Teague

Leverage Immersive Techniques to Experience Engineering Data

Beyond viewing the product, immersive 3D can help engineers take engineering data out of spreadsheets and experience it in a 3D vehicle context. For example, a simulation engineer could share crash results by virtually bringing a structural engineer inside the engine compartment. Or an engineer could share the view of a fluid dynamics simulation to evaluate airflow over a radiator in an immersed environment, at a large scale, using virtual smoke. These techniques provide a much more tangible, real-world way to comprehend, communicate, and collaborate around engineering data and decisions.

Explore the Benefits

Automotive companies gain important benefits from using real-time 3D in R&D and engineering, including:

  1. Early identification of issues
  2. Increased engineering optimization
  3. Reduced need for costly prototypes
  4. More effective cross-discipline collaboration
“Gathering data from VR wasn’t our first thought, but the research team was all over it. They can get a lot better feedback from VR than an image, and can get fast feedback on changing options.”
ERIC KLEIN / TEAGUEDesign Manager, Aviation Studio

Boost productivity and quality in manufacturing engineering

Improve Plant and Line Design with Immersive Tech

The value of real-time 3D to engineering doesn’t have to end with the product design. Immersive technologies are also very well suited for plant design. Manufacturing engineers can leverage 3D plant and line designs in order to examine plant layouts and changes by experiencing them virtually. If 3D models of the plant aren’t available, they can augment them with point clouds from a 3D scanner to incorporate existing equipment and infrastructure to view and explore the line at scale.

Beyond experiencing the plant, manufacturing engineers can evaluate the virtual vehicle as it passes through production in a virtual factory. This helps them validate operation sequencing and parts logistics. Beyond that, they can virtually examine parts, assemblies, and assembly instructions in the context of the production line to see the impact of manufacturing engineering decisions.

Virtually Investigate the Impact of the Plant Design on Products and Operators

Immersive 3D can also be used to better understand the role of operators in the plant. For example, it can be used to test ergonomics or view the interaction of operators with plant automation such as cobots. Some companies are even using real-time 3D to evaluate the impact that manufacturing operations have on product quality.

“We can run a whole assembly process from beginning to end, including subassemblies coming together, and apply the results of the simulation in real-time to show how the manufacturing process affects vehicle design.”
ELIZABETH BARON / FORD MOTOR COMPANYVirtual Reality and Advanced Visualization Technical Specialist
Virtual Production at Ford
Virtual Production at Ford – Image copyright: Ford

Explore the Benefits

Automotive companies gain important benefits from using real-time 3D in manufacturing engineering, including:

  1. “Shift left” to catch problems sooner
  2. Validate tooling to reduce delays and wasteful rework
  3. Reduce work-related injuries
  4. Improve product quality
“We do manufacturing process studies and apply the results to the car to see how it affects making the vehicle, and then we put it on the vehicle itself to see if that’s acceptable build quality. It’s a Six Sigma capability.”
ELIZABETH BARON / FORD MOTOR COMPANYVirtual Reality and Advanced Visualization Technical Specialist

Reduce constraints and add interest to training

Leverage Virtual Environments for Training

Another way to gain value from immersive 3D environments is to leverage them for virtual training. Beyond the “cool factor” of offering high-tech training to employees, there are a number of highly valuable benefits. In fact, training is often one of the first ways companies use real-time 3D and virtual reality.

Reduce Product Loss, Simulator Cost, and Travel

Training on virtual equipment reduces the need to train on physical infrastructure. This means that you don’t have to take production equipment offline or build expensive simulators. It also allows operators to train on virtual production lines before the physical line is completed, ensuring that they are productive as soon as the line is operational. It also frees up operators to train in alternate locations without having to travel to a simulator or a real, working facility.

Provide Enhanced Training with Real-Time 3D

Not only is virtual reality training less expensive, it provides much better training than alternate forms. For example, while it still gives a lifelike experience, it reduces the risk of injuries or exposure to harmful substances when training for procedures with inherent danger.

“We have dedicated spaces for training so we don’t slow down logistics. You need time, you need people, you need space – and that costs a lot of money. We decided that VR would be a great tool to train these people.”
JENS ANGERER / AUDITeam Lead for Human-Computer Interaction, Audio Production Lab
A woman using a VR headset at Audi
Image copyright: Audi

Virtual controls are also shown to develop muscle memory, but companies can enhance this kind of learning by adding physical controls to the virtual environment using a mixed reality approach.

Explore the Benefits

Automotive companies gain important benefits from using real-time 3D in training, including:

  1. Faster time to full capability
  2. Increased productivity
  3. Reduced errors
  4. Schedule independent of equipment availability
  5. Reduced cost for physical simulators
  6. Reduced travel costs for trainers and participants
“Having a VR simulation is always something that is very cool and motivates students to give it their best. As well, VR training is more economical, ecological, and efficient.”

Unleash innovation and explore additional uses

Train Autonomous Vehicles in Virtual Space

There are many other potential uses of real-time, interactive, and immersive 3D. One that has surfaced relatively recently relates to autonomous vehicles. It’s very costly to provide machine learning engines with enough real-world data to develop their driving algorithms. Recording real-world scenarios is expensive and adds risk, not to mention creates environmental impacts. Instead of recorded situations, companies are using real-time, interactive 3D in order to develop scenarios to help teach autonomous driving AI engines by providing scenarios and incorporating LIDAR, radar, other sensors.

Simulated, VR driving experiences can provide a much greater variety and diversity of scenarios to learn from. The models can incorporate physically recorded worlds and scenarios, but also generate new ones and modify scenarios to reflect different conditions such as lighting or weather. Using real-time 3D development technology, companies can generate scenes with other cars, pedestrians, and more from predefined libraries. The use of real-time 3D not only reduces the cost of training AI, it also reduces the risk of validating autonomous driving algorithms.

Gaining Intelligence by Analyzing Interactive Experience

Given that the automotive industry is early in the use of these tools, companies are exploring a variety of use cases. Another class of opportunities comes from analyzing how people explore and interact with immersive environments.

A spaceship cabin
Image copyright: Teague

For example, what areas of a car draw peoples’ attention in a VR configurator? Which options are most interesting to them? Auto companies can examine customer behavior to evaluate their preferences, discover what catches their attention, understand their requirements, and gain unique customer insights.

“It’s great to be able to have an idea and then actually walk around physically immersed in it while having a natural conversation to come up with better solutions. We’ve been doing physical mockups since 1937, and VR is a natural progression.”
ERIC KLEIN / TEAGUEDesign Manager, Aviation Studio
A spaceship cabin
Image copyright: Teague

Roadblocks and speed bumps removed

Pioneers Have Reaped Rewards and Paved the Way

The pioneers of real-time 3D have shown the way, pushed the limits, and proven the value. In the process, they created a market for tools that were once only available to the largest engineering organizations with enormous budgets. They took advanced rendering tools developed by the defense industry, which were then commercialized by the gaming industry, and adapted them for industrial use.

“Data prep is a crucial part of the process. If an artist doesn’t have to spend all day compiling a scene, we can tell a story sooner by using a configurator.”
ERIC KLEIN / TEAGUEDesign Manager, Aviation Studio

Lower Barriers to Entry Open Opportunities

The path is now ready for others to follow in order to gain the same value with a much lower investment. This is partially due to significant improvements in software solutions and processes. The biggest change, though, is that the cost and complexity of the hardware needed to operate real-time, 3D environments has dropped dramatically. Hardware and processing demand have moved from server farms to workstations and mobile devices. Lastly, there is now a workforce of trained developers created by the gaming community.

Platforms Are Adapting for Industry

The pioneers have taken the tools and made them fit for enterprise without sacrificing flexibility and agility. They have learned how to make real-time 3D ready for manufacturing by leveraging existing data like 3D CAD, parts, and assemblies to dramatically reduce the need for costly 3D artwork or manual 3D translations. Now, companies have turned their attention to improving data prep to take industrial-strength 3D CAD models and create lighter weight, “tessellated” geometry that lends itself better to real-time processing.

Leading tools now bring in 3D CAD models with fewer translation errors and less need for manual repairs or rework. Performance and results vary greatly, so this is an area to pay attention to as companies look for solutions.

“When I started on this journey the costs were astronomical. Now, they’re accessible to any company with industrial design and engineering. The costs have plummeted and are no longer a barrier to entry.”
ELIZABETH BARON / FORD MOTOR COMPANYVirtual Reality and Advanced Visualization Technical Specialist

The automotive industry is hitting the accelerator

Today’s Platforms Are Mature
While the pioneers often had to build their own toolsets, today there are platforms that provide a broad scope of capabilities to meet today’s industrial needs. Advances in technology and tools offer agility and flexibility to develop new capabilities. Beyond that, they have advanced to provide much smoother experiences resulting in significantly less AR sickness.

Leading platforms now provide the ability to deploy real-time 3D on anything from high-end caves and power walls to inexpensive VR headsets or a smartphone. In essence, they’ve taken advanced technology and made it practical and approachable for industry.

Automotive Is Tailoring Solutions to Their Special Needs
The software companies specifically serving the automotive industry are now adding special capabilities to support industry needs. Unlike 3D images for gaming, automotive use requires high fidelity to the actual vehicle. Automotive companies are also taking advantage of new tools and templates specific to the industry. Special solutions that bring in materials, textures, and colors from libraries that realistically represent sourceable items help ensure realism and manufacturability.

“Automatically converting our data is important because we are not creating a model in a year or month, we’re creating different models every day. Those changes need to be represented in VR.”
JENS ANGERER / AUDITeam Lead for Human-Computer Interaction, Audio Production Lab
A person driving using a VR headset
Image copyright: Ford

Solutions appropriate for automotive can leverage large, complex 3D CAD datasets with thousands of parts. They can convert these models to precise, yet lightweight, 3D models. The platforms also allow the auto industry to incorporate information from multiple sources, such as MCAD models with ECAD or CFD data, and combine them to develop a complete representation of the vehicle. A platform built for automotive can integrate with existing systems including PDM or PLM to leverage knowledge of parts, assemblies, and vehicle context.

Finally, automotive companies have to be able to work efficiently and quickly so they can adopt engineering changes and quickly see the impact on the entire vehicle. To do this, they demand new levels of automation and integration to industrialize processes and make them work in the enterprise environment.

“Our 3D data comes from a variety of sources through our data management process. People check in their CAD and it’s in the virtual vehicle model the next day for people to look at.”
ELIZABETH BARON / FORD MOTOR COMPANYVirtual Reality and Advanced Visualization Technical Specialist

Lead, follow the leaders, or fall further behind

Real-time 3D Is Coming, Ready or Not

The value of using real-time, immersive 3D in the automotive industry is compelling. The leaders will continue to innovate and expand on their lead. More importantly, lowered barriers to entry mean more companies will be able to take advantage of real-time 3D benefits, including startups that are embracing digitalization in order to displace industry veterans. Immersive, real-time 3D is quickly becoming a critical part of the modern technical toolkit for the automotive industry. We believe the innovators will continue to push forward, while those that don’t adopt immersive 3D technologies will fall further behind.

Getting Started

It’s time for companies to find an opportunity or a problem and address it. Companies should start small with a proof of concept (POC) as a first step. The POC, however, should provide value and not just serve as a learning exercise. Create value, learn, and build on that knowledge with next steps. Companies can choose a project similar to the ones described here, leveraging the experience of the pioneers, or unlock the creativity of their own organization by, for example, holding a “hackathon.”

“The technology has paid for itself many times over.”
ELIZABETH BARON / FORD MOTOR COMPANYVirtual Reality and Advanced Visualization Technical Specialist
A futuristic cabin
Image copyright: Teague

The Time to Act Is Now

If your company has been waiting to get involved with real-time 3D, now is the time. The costs have dropped tremendously. The time required to build valuable solutions in 3D is much lower. Specialized development resources are now ready to go. Computing power is available onsite or via the cloud.

Real-time, immersive 3D use cases have never been more in reach. Companies that adopt real-time 3D can still gain an advantage, while automotive companies can reap significant benefits in multiple dimensions of their business:

  1. Marketing and Sales
  2. Product Innovation and Design
  3. R&D and Engineering
  4. Manufacturing Engineering
  5. Training
  6. Autonomous Vehicle Training
  7. VR Analytics
“Customers have told us ‘you nailed it’ when we use real-time 3D in our design process. It really shines as a design and a sales tool.”
ERIC KLEIN / TEAGUEDesign Manager, Aviation Studio


About the Author

Jim Brown is the President of Tech-Clarity, an independent research and consulting firm that specializes in analyzing the business value of software technology and services. Jim has over 20 years of experience in software for the manufacturing industries. He has a broad background including roles in industry, management consulting, the software industry, and research.

Jim’s experience spans enterprise applications including PLM, ERP, quality management, service lifecycle management, manufacturing, supply chain management, and more. Jim is passionate about improving product innovation, product development, and engineering performance through digitalization and the intelligent use of software technology.

Jim is an experienced researcher, author, and public speaker and enjoys the opportunity to speak at conferences or anywhere he can engage with people with a passion to improve business performance through software technology.

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