Trinseo Key Account Manager Purav Shah is an avid user of head mounted displays (HMD) and enjoys his Oculus Rift headset for gaming and virtual- reality applications. "Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) have revolutionized the digital entertainment and shopping experiences for consumers," says Purav. "I'm firmly convinced that augmented, virtual and mixed reality technologies are also having a disruptive impact on the automotive industry."
As a consequence, we will have to readjust our materials portfolio and take advantage of the new opportunities and challenges arising for our customers.
When computer scientist Ivan Sutherland presented the first HMD in 1968, the connected computer was as big as a closet and the headset was attached to a mechanical arm hanging from the ceiling – the nickname "Sword of Damocles" was born. Later on, the military and aerospace industry started to use AR technology to support pilots and mechanics with information projected onto helmet visors or head-up displays.
Nowadays millions of users benefit from this ever-advancing technology, which produces enhanced or substituted realities using highly sophisticated hardware and software. VR and AR are also impacting vehicle and automotive applications: "I would differentiate between the use of AR and VR when it comes to materials for future automotive applications," Purav says. "From a consumer's perspective, VR in vehicles has more to do with entertainment as opposed to actual functionality. It's different with AR, since this is already part of today's vehicles - think of components such as head-up displays."
VR and AR in the automotive industry
Virtual reality is most commonly an artificial, computer-generated simulation of a real-life environment that stimulates a user's vision and hearing. It makes us feel like we are experiencing the simulated reality firsthand. Augmented reality is a technology that adds computer-generated layers as an enhancement over existing reality and allows us to interact with it. More and more, we are using AR to blend digital components into the real world.
For Purav, VR is improving the buyer experience and therefore can be very useful for marketing and training purposes. Summarizing some of the areas of application for VR and AR, he says, “It can actually support the interaction between car stylists, engineers and the end-consumer.”
Different shapes, patterns, colors and so on can be explored without producing a new model or sample for every modification. Virtual prototype development takes a matter of hours or a few days while a physical prototype usually needs weeks or months before it is ready for testing or validation. For example, VW’s R&D department established CAVE™ (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment), an immersive virtual reality environment where projectors are directed onto multiple walls of a room-sized cube.
AR can facilitate exact handling in highly precise work steps and therefore can mean fewer mistakes made and reduced scrap in the manufacturing process (i.e. step-by-step instructions, correct tools and configurations, etc.)
Training, service and maintenance
Today’s vehicle technology is increasingly complex. AR support can enable easier and more time-efficient training for customers and employees as well as improvements in a company’s technical service and maintenance offerings. A software-based system such as MARTA (Mobile Augmented Reality Technical Assistance) from VW is an example of the practical use of AR in training and service. It shows real and virtual parts in relation to one another in three dimensions – providing excellent support to development and service teams.
Marketing and sales
AR and VR offer the opportunity to create attractive interactive environments for enhanced product presentations and emotionalized customer experiences. For instance, visitors to Audi City Berlin have the opportunity to experience Audi’s complete range of products on a purely virtual basis. The whole (virtual) car can be examined and turned 360 degrees, it can be taken for a test drive through virtual landscapes, and of course its interior can also be virtually enjoyed.
The increasing use of AR and VR tools in configuration and customization will result in more variations in vehicle styling and it will reinforce the general trend towards more individualization.
Great opportunities and the need for portfolio adjustments
“We must continuously readjust our products portfolio to meet the challenges in dealing with new technologies, including augmented reality applications being increasingly included in vehicles,” Purav says. Looking ahead, this includes new technologies such as active haptic feedback technology with search (virtual buttons) and push-button haptics, and ultra-flat control panels employing capacitive technology for signal evaluation. “Our focus is to support the development and production of numerous new applications. When we think of electrical mobility or self-driving vehicles, there will be completely new and different parts, while other parts will probably disappear.”
Compared to the past, Purav sees different requirements – for example improving vehicle interior acoustics and demands for integrating more complex safety features. In addition to various marketing and design opportunities, there is already an increasing amount of painted or coated trim parts in automotive interiors. Decorative and new structural parts will play a more important role for both interior and exterior applications. As an example, Purav lists two of the many significant changes affecting different applications that can offer new opportunities for a plastics solutions provider:
Removing the side mirrors results in new design options and easier vehicle parking. At the same time, the integration of a camera and display in the head mirror will be an even more complex task.
OEMs will have to integrate an increasing number of manifold electronic components. It will be a key challenge to meet the new complex requirements, particularly with respect to enhanced thermal and mechanical properties.
“We also expect disruptive changes in automotive surfaces,” Purav continues. “It’s not only the touchscreen in the car, we also see innovation and business potential in parts such as door handles, that nowadays unlock the car if you touch them. Our soft-plastics products offer great opportunities for this area, not only for great haptics but particularly for highly functional performance. Some of our existing materials – such as MAGNUM™ ABS or PULSE™ PC/ABS – need innovative modifications to support new functions or to allow for sensor integration. As a leading manufacturer of rigid and soft-touch plastics for the automotive industry, we will also have to provide greater manufacturing flexibility and a higher innovation rate.”
Contact Purav Shah at email@example.com to talk and learn more about our technical expertise and material solutions that can support your development of smart surfaces and applications for the coming generation of new vehicles.
Jörg Friedrich is co-founder and Managing Director of the design consulting company Car Men. We could talk to him about the growing importance of automotive interior design and the disappearance of mainstream styling.
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