Last week we took a short trip to Prague, there’s a small team of around 40 who are shaking up the VR world.
A few years ago, Marek, the CEO of VRgineers, tried to set up a VR experience for the public. He found the headsets weren’t durable and that the quality was just too poor to be truly immersive. After evaluating all the VR headsets on the market, nothing quite cut it. So he set about making his own, it would end up being the best VR experience available today.
XTAL is the current and second-generation model by VRgineers; it uses 5k OLED screens, can track your hands without the need for additional devices, is plug and play with the majority of non-proprietary systems, features custom lenses made by an Israeli company allowing crystal clear vision and costs a cool, 5,000 Euro’s.
But what does all this have to do with cars? VR is for gamers, right? Wrong.
VR is for EVERYTHING, its limitless in what it can be used for. Focussing on the automotive, VRgineers are currently working with a fair few Formula 1 teams on their race simulations.
Instead of huge great screens that can’t give enough detail in the corners, those big – half an F1 car – style rigs are being fitted with VR capabilities. Now you can view detail as if it were real life, helping top drivers apex the corners at just the right point time after time.
This is the obvious use, but what about for engineering? What if you could alter the design of a part on the fly and then collaborate with your counterparts across the other side of the world?
Maybe you want to see what the bodywork looks like with glossy reflections bouncing off it before carbon fibre is even baked? Maybe there’s a better way a part can be made, could it be 3D printed, can it be simplified, what does the inside of the thing look like?
All this can be achieved in virtual reality, most of it is already being done in design studios and labs across the globe. The likes of Audi, BMW, VW and Honda are using XTAL headsets from VRgineers, while the majority of U.S. car marques are signed up or about to…but it’s all NDA so you’ll have to use your imagination.
And it doesn’t stop there; end user experience is one thing VRgineers wants to capitalise on. To do so Marek says VR has to become ubiquitous, until it becomes widespread it will be gimmicky, but it will get there.
VRgineers see a time where car dealerships will maybe have one car in them, to see the rest of the range you’ll don a VR headset. Here you’ll be able to see your exact car, speccing, building and customising in real time. Want to go inside? Sure.
What about changing the wood for aluminium, maybe the red stitching to blue? Do you prefer the fine leather grain or the soft finish Alcantara gives?
Walking around you can do anything you like, change colour, alter the wheels, open doors, fold the seats, open the sunroof and all via voice commands.
This isn’t science fiction; I did it in two of their demos, one on a BMW M4, the other with a certain Czech car brand. All the above were controlled via my voice while wandering around it in real time. Kneeling and looking at the rear lights on the BMW the insides are perfectly lit as if you were following it down the M1 late on a Saturday night.
Peer closer and the fleck in the paint can be seen, and because you’ve always not walked into objects as a force of habit, you walk around the thing as if it’s actually there. I can walk right through it, but I don’t because it’s there. Instead, I open the door to look inside, it becomes second nature straight away.
Be brave enough to walk straight towards it, and you don’t fall flat on your face, you just glide through the door as if you were a spectre. Most odd.
You don’t even need implements in your hands to interact with the world before your eyes, XTAL uses Leap Motion integration to track hand movements in real time. Just put them out in front of you, and two white hands appear, turn your palm over, pinch your fingers, make a fist, anything you do gets tracked perfectly in relation to the VR world your in.
The only thing you have to get used to is the depth; it can take a few tries to grab at the door handle or to turn the steering wheel as you lose the depth perception a little so have to reach out further than you think.
Marek wants to go a step further though. You won’t just build, spec and see your car, you’ll sit inside it and go for a drive. This way, you can get a feel for what it looks like behind the wheel, how are the blind spots, how high is the view out the front, can you see the bonnet, how thick are the pillars?
To do this there would be a mock-up of a car in the dealership, just a body in white, a one size fits all car. Sitting inside you’ll then get an augmented reality experience, everything will physically be there and pressable, touchable, but what you see will be the options you’ve specced. That aluminium trim, the Alcantara seats with the blue stitching.
They’re already working on it, and I had a quick demo of one of their early augmented reality headsets. There’s no doubt the guys are taking this seriously and looking to lead from the front.
Coming away from meeting Marek and the team at Vrgineers gave me a wider perception of what VR can be used for – literally anything. In the automotive space, this can be something as granular and minute as circuit board design or as grand as production line layouts.
But for VR to be truly beneficial the quality needs to be high, you need full width, peripheral vision; this is where XTAL pushes the boundaries and should drag the market upwards to a better place than where it currently sits. And for a team of 40 dedicated staff to do this, in just three years, from the middle of Europe is nothing less than impressive.
You might not know it, but VR is already saving time and money when it comes to the vehicles we drive, it’s only going to become more commonplace as the benefits are realised and adoption among all manufacturers becomes widespread.