The automaker is working with Stanford University on an auto design platform combining VR with haptic technology.
Volkswagen Group is experimenting with the way vehicles could be designed by using virtual reality combined with haptic technology, which tries to simulate the feeling of a virtual object.
A small team of IT engineers at the auto-manufacturer’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, is partnering with researchers at Stanford University on the project. The goal, they say, is to speed up the design and development of vehicles using the cutting-edge technologies, and to identify potentially costly design problems earlier in the development cycle.
“When you construct a new car it takes a lot of time, a lot of money and it’s necessary to build physical prototypes to validate different functions, and these prototypes are very, very expensive,” said Frank Ostermann, head of the Virtual Engineering Lab at Volkswagen Group’s Information Technology division.
A team of six experts saw an opportunity to cut costly physical prototypes and replace them with immersive, 360-degree views of digitally-constructed interior and exterior components of a vehicle through virtual reality HTC Vive headsets.
Virtual components of a car, including interior and exterior parts such as buttons, lights or consoles, can be switched out and replaced easily with a few lines of code during the design process. But the engineers lack the sense of touch in a virtual world.
“Sitting in the virtual environment, you’re just reaching out into the air without any feedback, and the developers had been used to sitting in a physical car, so we thought about how to solve this problem,” said Jan Jacobs, a software engineer at Volkswagen Group IT’s Virtual Engineering Lab.
The team has been collaborating on a research project involving haptics technology with Stanford for more than a year. “We have to work on haptics because it’s an essential part,” Mr. Jacobs said.
Haptics refers to the sense of touch and how humans perceive the world through both touching objects and is closely related to proprioception, our sense of where our bodies are in space, said Sean Follmer, assistant professor at Stanford’s department of mechanical engineering, who is working on the Volkswagen Group research project.
Experts say that adding the sensation of touch to virtual reality will influence a variety of industries, from health care to interior design, while boosting demand for the headsets they support, as WSJ has previously reported.
Haptic technology has the potential to play a crucial part in design, Dr. Follmer said. “There’s this big shift of moving toward virtual reality, which can speed up the design process … but you lose this sense of touch, which is still important to how designers and engineers operate,” Dr. Follmer said.
It’s “jarring” when users reach for a virtual object while wearing a virtual reality headset and there’s nothing there, he said.
Shape displays, a type of haptic device, are similar to computer-based graphical displays, except that each pixel has a physical height instead of a color.
Each display, which costs between $5,000 to $6,000, consists of an array of about 400 or 500 aluminum pins with 3D-printed plastic tops. Motors and screws underneath the pins, combined with computer software, know what shape the pins are supposed to be rendering when a user touches the surface of the display. The pins can render many different types of shapes: pyramids, spheres, boxes and the like.
In Volkswagen’s case, the pins would render objects such as buttons, knobs and fans.
“We’re really interested to understand how we can give this sense of touch back to designers and engineers who have traditionally used clay models and other physical materials to prototype the interior and exterior of cars,” Dr. Follmer said.
There are some technical challenges to overcome before Volkswagen Group deploys haptic displays to its engineers, though. There’s no estimated time frame for when that will happen, the researchers say.
One major challenge is figuring out a way to get a higher resolution haptic display at an affordable cost. The spacing between pins is currently 7 millimeters, but the resolution at which humans can perceive things with touch is under 1 millimeter, Dr. Follmer said.
The other challenge is how to best position the haptic displays in a cost effective way so that whenever engineers reach out to touch a virtual object in the real world, they will touch an active display area, he said.
In the future, virtual reality and haptic technology will go hand-in-hand, he said.