This new virtual reality tool could transform how we design cars

seymourpowell virtual reality tease
CNN  — 

Google opened a new world of VR possibilities when it introduced the 3D painting app Tilt Brush in 2016. Targeting the worlds of art and design (Google recently launched its own artist in residence program), the software has shown what can happen when creativity is let loose in a virtual environment.

Now, London-based design studio Seymourpowell is hoping to do the same in the automobile sector with a new 3D sketching tool. Wearing an HTC Vive headset, users are able to draw, manipulate and augment car models in virtual reality. The software is designed to speed up the design process, with adjustments quicker to make than if modeled in Photoshop or in traditional 3D-imaging programs.

Streamlining the process

Seymourpowell’s lead automotive designer, Richard Seale, hopes the tool will bridge the longstanding divide between designers (who are paid to shoot for the stars) and engineers (who are meant to keep them grounded).

“As an engineer, it’s very frustrating to (produce) cars with designers, because designers and engineers are typically at loggerheads,” he said at the firm’s south London studio. “It’s the same for designers, (who say) ‘I want to do this – why can’t I?’”

seymourpowell vr car design 1
How to design the car of your dreams in VR
01:01 - Source: CNN

The typical design process begins with a meeting – or three – followed by concept sketches. Once a design is approved, a clay model is created. After that, a costlier model is used to further refine the design.

This is the point where designers and engineers typically clash. A car shaped like an arrow would be great for keeping aerodynamic drag to a minimum, but it would be impractical and unlikely to meet safety requirements.

Here’s where the new software steps in. Put on the VR headset and you are transported to a 3D workspace where the view adjusts to your head movements. The left control stick lets you sketch lines, which can be twisted, moved and manipulated with the right one. You can then jump around your digital surroundings at the press of a button.

With so few functions to worry about – and because you can see the two controllers as if they were your own virtual hands – the process is surprisingly intuitive.

When Seymourpowell debuted the software at the London Motor Show in May, Seale was able to sketch an impressive three-dimensional bike in 10 minutes – something that would take considerably longer with typical 3D imaging software.

“We think that the quicker and easier it is to do something, the more likely you are to do it,” Seale explained.

From concept to reality

Because cars are typically symmetrical, the software speeds up the design process by mirroring the lines you draw. You can create a full 3D concept vehicle in under an hour.

The software also has a social side that can transform how the design process works. Other team members – whether designers or engineers – are able to look at drawings on a monitor and, if they have another headset to hand, make adjustments in real time.

This means that engineering specifications, such as the legally required height of a car’s headlights, can be brought into the design process earlier on. Later down the line, surfaces can be applied to show what a car would look like in a certain color or material.

Getting up close to a life-size digital model makes it easier to spot design problems. The headset’s perspective can also be adjusted to show the car’s inside, allowing designers to assess the driver’s visibility.

This all means that designers can come up with designs that are better thought out, which in turn means that they are more likely to be approved (especially if any engineering prerequisites have been met) and may be easier to build. This will ultimately speed up the process and save companies money.

According to Seale, two car companies (“major” German and Chinese manufacturers) have expressed interest since the London Motor Show, and the company is already exploring how their technology could be applied to architecture and education.

Seymourpowell plans to spend the next 10 years adding new tools and commercializing the product.

“There are so many possibilities that you want to do everything,” Seale said. “In that way, it’s brilliant.”