BMW opts to incorporate HTC Vive VR headsets and mixed reality into the development of new vehicle models. Computer images instead of laboriously constructed draft models: greater flexibility, faster results and lower costs.

Munich. BMW has become the first car manufacturer to
introduce a mixed reality system into vehicle development that has
been devised entirely using components from the computer games
industry. This offers some significant advantages over the VR systems
that have existed to date, and is the first step towards making
virtual reality a very real part of many developer workstations in the
not-too-distant future.

The adoption of this computer system makes it possible to save a
great deal of time and effort, especially during the early stages of
development. VR investigations could previously only be conducted at
costly specialised facilities. By incorporating consumer electronics,
the developers gain an unprecedented degree of flexibility, because
any modifications can be implemented and tested very quickly. In
addition to this, developers around the globe will be able to take
part in the decision-making process from their own office without
having to travel too far. Only once the draft designs have been
approved with the help of the 3D headsets will they actually be built
for further testing.

BMW has been employing VR systems in the development process
since the 1990s. It is now reaffirming its pioneering status by
systematically implementing technology from a sector which has not
previously been the focal point of industrial applications. Since this
spring, components from the computer games industry have been allowing
engineers and designers to immerse themselves more and more often in
virtual worlds that are increasingly realistic. The shorter innovation
cycles of consumer electronics result in a far wider scope of
functions together with lower costs. This thereby enables more vehicle
functions to be translated to a VR model in ever more realistic
fashion. It is furthermore possible to scale the system to many
different developer workstations with little effort.

This lends itself ideally to the BMW strategy with its focus on
innovative technologies and digitisation. Vehicle functions and new
interior designs can quickly be modelled with the aid of the visual
experiences. This makes it possible to simulate drives through a city
while testing what the all-round view of the surrounding area is like
or whether a display is poorly legible or awkward to reach depending
on the viewing angle or seat position. All the time, the development
engineer has the impression of sitting in a real car in a real driving situation.

Following thorough evaluation over the course of 2015, BMW has opted
to implement the most powerful solutions currently available. Thanks
to the timely support provided by mobile computing manufacturer HTC,
several HTC Vive developer kits have already been in use in pilot
projects since autumn 2015.

This headset’s core components consist of two high-resolution screens
and a laser-based tracking system that covers an area of 5 x 5 metres
in the BMW application. The graphics are computed by software that
normally serves to produce the very best computer gaming graphics. BMW
uses Unreal Engine 4 from Epic Games for this task. This enables
stable rendering of 90 frames per second while achieving
photo-realistic quality too. The computation is performed using
high-end gaming computers with water-cooled, overclocked components
(including Intel Core i7 and two Nvidia Titan X graphic cards).
Further advances are expected in terms of both the headset hardware
and software, and these will be evaluated at regular intervals.

Visual sensations alone are not enough though. For this reason, BMW
employs a reusable interior assembly which, thanks to the use of rapid
prototyping, further enhances perception by producing a mixed reality
experience. Precise, stereoscopic acoustic playback, e.g. for the
characteristic BMW engine sound, further intensifies the immersive
experience. This, combined with the VR model enables to experience the
vehicle in different environments. The completely realistic vehicle
impression produced by this method is so far unique in the automotive industry.

The HTC Vive Lighthouse tracking system that is used floods the room
with an invisible light field that is tracked by sensors on the VR
headset and the controllers. The system’s lasers refresh the tracking
field at intervals of just a few
milliseconds, thereby enabling
ultra-precise tracking of every body movement and even the slightest
alteration in the viewing direction. It is thanks to this supremely
accurate and stable tracking that the wearer is able to move around in
the virtual environment with zero interference – this is essential not
just for creating a spatial impression that is as true to life as
possible and maximising the level of immersion, but also for making
the VR headset easy to get accustomed to. The overall mixed reality
system that was developed in-house by BMW ensures optimum interaction
between the individual devices and components, such as the VR model,
rapid prototyping, VR headset and tracking.

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