Another virtual reality system is a CAVE (computer assisted virtual environment), which is a room with large screens on three walls and on the ceiling. Users wear stereoscopic glasses for a holodeck-like effect life-size, 3D images of objects appear in the middle of the room, so that engineers can walk around and examine them.
Another system allows users to walk around inside a large open space while it tracks their position. "We can put an F-250 [super duty truck] into that environment and you can walk around it like it's a life-sized vehicle," Baron says. "It's like an inspection tool for what we're producing and what our customers might take delivery of. That's a really important aspect in our product development process."
A virtual environment allows engineers to dial up different lighting settings, to see how the exterior would look at noon on a hazy day, or in the evening or under mercury vapor lights. Virtual environments also help enable long-distance collaboration, she says.
"We also have a virtual space in Australia, and if they're immersed and we're immersed at the same time, we can see where they are in the virtual environment and we can talk to each other," she says. "We can say, 'Look at this, look at that.'"
And virtual reality allows the company to look at many more prototypes than would have been possible if they had to be actually built.
"There is no way we could build thousands of prototypes," she says. "We would only be able to build a handful. But also, there is no way we could check in the physical world all the things we check in the virtual worlds. We can make intelligent decisions about our design, with respect to how we manufacture it, and that's a huge time save and cost save."
Ford is expanding its use of virtual reality, she adds. "We're actually creating another virtual space here in Dearborn [Michigan] to handle the overflow," she says. "We're so packed. We can't fit in what we can do in one day. It's been shown to be so valuable."
Ford also uses virtual reality for manufacturing assembly simulations, to help ensure the health and safety of workers, for training, and to study how drivers behave.
"We have driving simulations, another virtual reality application, where we'll bring in people who haven't slept all night and ask them to perform some tasks," she says. "And then perform an analysis on how they respond versus someone who's had their fresh cup of coffee and they're bright and cheerful in the morning."
Other manufacturing companies are also upgrading their virtual prototypes from simple 3D graphics on a monitor to fully immersive virtual reality systems such as those made possible by the Oculus Rift and similar devices.
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