Panasonic Automotive Powers Innovative Vehicle UX Design with Varjo's Virtual Reality
Panasonic Automotive is spearheading a transformative wave in the future of mobility. By harnessing the expansive potential of immersive technologies, they create immersive and holistic experiences that prioritize safety and meaningful interactions.
Foundation of a Sustainable Mobility Society
Panasonic Automotive Systems Company of America develops, produces, and sells advanced solutions and technologies to business customers in the automotive industry.
The company collaborates with a wide range of clients spanning various industries and scales, with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) like GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, and Subaru representing one fraction of their diverse partnership network. Their mission is to create a sustainable mobility society for the betterment of each individual’s life.
At the forefront of Panasonic Automotive’s technological advancements is the development of Augmented Reality Head-Up Displays (AR HUD), an innovative user interface designed to augment the driver’s field of view and situational awareness within a vehicle.
The AR HUD leverages either 2D or 3D visuals to project crucial information in front of the driver during the drive with the goal of enhancing driver safety and spatial awareness. For instance, AR HUDs can be used to project a pathway on the road, showing you exactly where to go, or to highlight real-world hazards or points of interest.
Challenges of the Traditional UX Design Process
Panasonic Automotive’s Advanced Engineering UX Design Department, situated in Farmington Hills, Michigan, is central to the company’s efforts in creating mobility innovations for the future. The department’s UX team specializes in user experience and design, working on diverse projects ranging from the cockpit driver experience to AR HUDs, Wi-Fi cameras, premium audio systems, and more.
Traditionally the process was linear. UX designers typically begin by crafting a visual concept, then engineering proceeded to find technical solutions to meet the UX expectations. However, UX designers didn’t have a way to test the user experience until the functional prototype was available in the vehicle months later, leaving UX teams with limited time to make improvements later in the process.
Current development of HUDs is associated with challenges with high development cost due to windshields being tailored to a specific vehicle, and their user experience not being fully perceivable until operational within the vehicle. Design teams strive for the ‘fail fast’ design philosophy that advocates testing numerous options early, but this can become costly because all the experiences need to be re-engineered to suit different vehicles.
In the past, designers would do simulations in technical software or present their designs with different documents, drawings, or renderings, but none of these methods truly convey the reality of the final solution.
UX Design Shifts VR to the Forefront
For Panasonic Automotive, adopting immersive technologies became a pivotal force in conquering many workflow challenges. Utilizing Varjo’s virtual reality, the UX team at Panasonic Automotive is capable of crafting high-fidelity virtual prototypes in the development process of HUDs and other cockpit experiences, enabling testing of the end-user experience.
Instead of waiting for a development team to write software, then having it flashed into the hardware, and finally set up a time to test drive the car, all these steps can be done simultaneously in VR, enabling swift changes. “We can do all of this in VR and review it before a functional prototype is built, which is highly beneficial,” says Sachiko Kobayashi, UX Design Sr. Manager at Panasonic Automotive.
This pre-emptive testing in VR allows the team to guide specifications for an improved end-user experience, test various use cases and scenarios all at once, and even simulate tests within the vehicle setting. The use of VR has shifted the UX design stage to much earlier in the process, simplifying iterative design and providing an innovative approach in vehicle experience.
Innovative VR UX Design Hands-on Experiences
One of the advanced solutions built by Panasonic Automotive’s team is a simulation utilizing the Varjo headset that can transport their virtual experience beyond the confines of the lab. This immersive setup allows for real-time customer feedback on various design elements and enables users to navigate virtual scenarios, such as driving in varying lighting and weather conditions.
“The ability to simulate the experience of sitting in a car and driving gives a much more accurate understanding of the proposed designs than a CAD simulation or a rendering of the solution,” Kobayashi explains.
“It feels closer and more relatable. It’s vital to allow all involved to experience it before it’s implemented into a vehicle.”
Immersive Mood Rooms Convey Brand Essence
Virtual reality is also used to construct ‘mood rooms’ – immersive environments mirroring the design essence of Panasonic Automotive Premium Audio Brands. These virtual environments serve as “living room”-styled spaces, created to inspire customers by embodying the potential ambiance and design essence of what a future automotive space could bring.
“The use of VR headsets means that customers can be instantly transported to an environment that is completely tailored to the brand,” says Joe Perry, Senior UI Designer at Panasonic Automotive. “Whether we’re showcasing to customers at a trade show or to partners in different countries, VR provides a flexible and immersive way to communicate the brand’s essence.”
“With VR, we can sidestep potential safety hazards, physical limitations, and time constraints, and focus on learning and innovating.”
Sachiko Kobayashi - UX Design Sr. Manager at Panasonic Automotive
VR Empowers Panasonic Automotive to Iterate and Create Effectively
Virtual reality has emerged as a game-changer for Panasonic Automotive, empowering the team to iterate and visualize experiences before they are brought to life, identifying potential challenges early and paving the way for effective solution design. This iterative and proactive approach ultimately leads to significant time and cost savings and a higher quality end-product.
VR offers a safe and cost-effective platform for exploring new areas and testing various scenarios and environments in a safe context. “With VR, we can sidestep potential safety hazards, physical limitations, and time constraints, and focus on learning and innovating,” Kobayashi says.
Moreover, immersive technology assists Panasonic Automotive in communicating ideas and showcasing expected end-user experiences to anyone they collaborate with. The ability to identify and iterate on issues upfront, test them, and share findings with stakeholders makes it much easier to steer the project in the right direction from the start. “A key benefit is the ability to simulate hardware months in advance. Before ground is even broken on a project, we often have a VR model to present. This allows us to directly illustrate potential pain points much earlier than before,” Perry tells.
The team at Panasonic Automotive highlights the high-resolution capability of the Varjo headset as the standout feature that effectively complements their designs. “We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive experience working with the Varjo headset,” says Perry. “UX testing in VR is often challenging with lower-resolution headsets due to the screen door effect, making it hard to identify minor UX elements. The high-resolution capacity of the Varjo XR-3 removes this obstacle, enabling comprehensive UX testing.”
Broadened Horizons with Immersive Technologies
Panasonic Automotive is committed to staying at the forefront of technological innovation, constantly pushing boundaries to enhance their operational efficiency and service delivery. Next, the UX team aims to explore new areas in immersive technologies, such as mixed reality and remote collaboration, to improve communication and enable conducting reviews remotely as effectively as if they were in person.
“With this technology, possibilities are endless. It enables us to create various scenarios, use cases, and immersive experiences,” says Kobayashi.
As the automotive industry gravitates towards widespread implementation of digital twins, VR/XR is set to seamlessly integrate into the design and development work cycle for UX design. The UX team at Panasonic Automotive sees the major driving factor being the ability to understand the implications of design choices years before the actual vehicle can be manufactured.
“User experience is going to be a key design and business priority in the future of mobility and Panasonic’s commitment to providing meaningful mobility experiences. Leveraging advanced technologies like VR, we aim to introduce added value and safety into every journey,” says Kobayashi.