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Panel Recap: The Future of Mixed Reality in the Automotive Industry at SXSW 2023

April 28, 2023
by Varjo
|
Design

At this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) in March, Varjo had the privilege to join a panel discussing the future of the automotive industry with industry thought leaders. 

Titled “Road to Mixed Reality – Automotive’s New Frontier,” Jussi Mäkinen of Varjo was joined by Timmy Ghiurau of Volvo Cars and Jeff Hanks of Unity on stage. Sofie Hvitved of the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies moderated the panel discussion.

Read this panel recap to find out what the future holds for the automotive industry and the transformative role mixed reality will play in this future. This article summarizes the key points from the discussion, but you can also listen to the entire panel here.

No longer science fiction: Mixed reality is already here for the automotive industry, with significant benefits

The automotive industry was one of the first major industries to embrace mixed reality fully, and it is already changing how cars are engineered, designed, sold, and driven. 15 out of the 20 biggest car manufacturers in the world already use Varjo mixed reality in different parts of the automotive workflow.

The panelists identified the multiple benefits of XR technologies in today’s automotive industry.

VR car design

Reducing the need for physical mockups

For example, Jussi Mäkinen pointed out that mixed reality has already helped reduce the use of physical automotive design mockups. While clay models and similar tools can never be eliminated entirely, the ability to replace many of these physical models with photorealistic mixed reality is a huge benefit. They enable designers to iterate on designs much faster, with lifelike visuals. Cars of the future will look different thanks to this added speed and creativity.

Timmy Ghiurau mentioned that while mixed reality and virtual reality have existed for a while, the technology only became good enough for some of the most demanding visual automotive applications in the past six years. Varjo’s headsets were the first ones approved by Volvo and have already had a significant impact on their work.

Test-driving future designs in mixed reality

In addition to replacing physical mockups, Ghiurau mentioned that the ability to overlay a digital design on an actual car while driving is also beneficial when designing user interfaces. The automotive designers can even do simple modifications from the backseat during test drives without needing to go back to the design studio. This helps them get new learnings and feedback much more efficiently.

More efficient collaboration

The panelists agreed that one of the most significant current benefits of mixed reality is that it helps people in different fields work better together because it helps develop a shared understanding. 

For example, Jeff Hanks of Unity pointed out that technical fields like engineering and visual fields like exterior design can now collaborate more efficiently and discuss practical applications together. Historically their communication styles have been very different, but in mixed reality, the visual element can meet the physics and hard numbers in a way that helps the teams talk to each other better. 

Faster iterations and earlier involvement of stakeholders

Furthermore, mixed reality allows the desired end result, such as a piece of the interior design, or even a whole new car model, to be shown in a lifelike way much earlier in the process than before. This has enormous benefits because key stakeholders can be involved much earlier in the process, and getting feedback becomes easier. This also allows faster iterations and ultimately helps build more impressive, technologically advanced cars.

Democratizing access to high-end visualization

Ghiurau pointed out that one of the most important factors is widening the access to and ability to use mixed reality technology across the organization. While a specialized mixed reality team can already accomplish a lot, a single group can only come up with some of the use cases for different departments and functions. This is why enablement is crucial. 

Once you give different teams access to mixed reality tools and simply help them to use them for themselves, new use cases spring up constantly, leading to further benefits and efficiencies. This is why mixed reality shouldn’t be thought of only as an engineering or design-focused technology. 

“Mixed reality shouldn’t be thought of only as an engineering or design-focused technology.”

Ghiurau also mentioned that Varjo Reality Cloud has already helped in this regard because it allows people to stream 3D content on a more diverse set of devices without needing a powerful desktop computer or someone experienced in operating specific systems.

These current applications are already enormously beneficial, but how did the panelists see the future?

What will the future of mixed reality look like in the automotive sector?

VR car design & mixed reality in automotive

Varjo, Volvo Cars, and Unity have all been key players in developing mixed reality use cases in the automotive sector and have collaborated for a long time. All the panelists agreed that while there are already several use cases, a lot more is on the way. Current applications are merely scratching the surface of what the technology will be capable of within the automotive ecosystem.

Hanks pointed out that excluding a person’s home or place of work, cars are one of the spaces where people spend most of their time, and this space is currently under-utilized. Especially as self-driving and safety technologies develop, mixed reality could power all kinds of new experiences inside cars with zero compromises on safety because they do not entirely block the user out of the real world; they simply add digital elements to it. 

Power of digital twins

Ghiurau was highly excited about the potential of digital twins. Digital twins of cars will undoubtedly keep getting more sophisticated. They won’t just be design models, but people will be able to create exact replicas of cars, all the way down to the physics, technology, and signals the car sends. For example, collision detection sensors can be trained with Unity to respond to events that would be hard to accurately and reliably produce in real life, such as an object falling from a truck on a motorway in front of a person’s car.

However, the evolution of digital twins will not be limited to the cars themselves. Eventually, there will be digital twins of specific roads and even entire cities, where physics, weather conditions, traffic, and other elements can all be applied and realistically interact, opening up a world of new possibilities in product development.

Radical changes in customer feedback and purchase processes

Jussi Mäkinen saw that while automotive companies are leveraging mixed reality in-house to bring different teams closer together, the same will eventually happen with customers. This will open up new possibilities for areas such as sales and getting insights and feedback directly from customers even before the car model is even finished and the car is built.

Hanks agreed and mentioned that he thought the purchase process of a car won’t look like what we are used to in the future. At some point, a customer can probably custom build a vehicle in mixed reality at a dealership or even from the comfort of their home. Instead of a 2D sales configurator in a browser, they will be able to see a lifelike replica of the finished product down to the tiniest detail. This digital car could then be taken for a test drive before it has even been built. It might even enable more “personalized” car models where the buyer could choose things like where they want certain buttons to be placed, and so forth.

New use cases through broader access to mixed reality technology

Ghiurau also reiterated that many of the use cases will probably be something we can’t even imagine right now. This is why democratizing access to mixed reality is so important. By enabling people working in different functions at automotive companies to take advantage of the technology themselves, they’ll be able to use it in new, unexpected ways going forward. 

Mixed reality will keep expanding its footprint in the automotive industry, and all panelists agreed that the industry will remain one of the leaders in its developments for years to come.

Varjo, Volvo Cars, and Unity have all been key players in developing mixed reality use cases in the automotive sector and have collaborated for a long time. All the panelists agreed that while there are already several use cases, a lot more is on the way. Current applications are merely scratching the surface of what the technology will be capable of within the automotive ecosystem.

Hanks pointed out that excluding a person’s home or place of work, cars are one of the spaces where people spend most of their time, and this space is currently under-utilized. Especially as self-driving and safety technologies develop, mixed reality could power all kinds of new experiences inside cars with zero compromises on safety because they do not entirely block the user out of the real world; they simply add digital elements to it. 

Power of digital twins

Ghiurau was highly excited about the potential of digital twins. Digital twins of cars will undoubtedly keep getting more sophisticated. They won’t just be design models, but people will be able to create exact replicas of cars, all the way down to the physics, technology, and signals the car sends. For example, collision detection sensors can be trained with Unity to respond to events that would be hard to accurately and reliably produce in real life, such as an object falling from a truck on a motorway in front of a person’s car.

However, the evolution of digital twins will not be limited to the cars themselves. Eventually, there will be digital twins of specific roads and even entire cities, where physics, weather conditions, traffic, and other elements can all be applied and realistically interact, opening up a world of new possibilities in product development.

Radical changes in customer feedback and purchase processes

Jussi Mäkinen saw that while automotive companies are leveraging mixed reality in-house to bring different teams closer together, the same will eventually happen with customers. This will open up new possibilities for areas such as sales and getting insights and feedback directly from customers even before the car model is even finished and the car is built.

Hanks agreed and mentioned that he thought the purchase process of a car won’t look like what we are used to in the future. At some point, a customer can probably custom build a vehicle in mixed reality at a dealership or even from the comfort of their home. Instead of a 2D sales configurator in a browser, they will be able to see a lifelike replica of the finished product down to the tiniest detail. This digital car could then be taken for a test drive before it has even been built. It might even enable more “personalized” car models where the buyer could choose things like where they want certain buttons to be placed, and so forth.

New use cases through broader access to mixed reality technology

Ghiurau also reiterated that many of the use cases will probably be something we can’t even imagine right now. This is why democratizing access to mixed reality is so important. By enabling people working in different functions at automotive companies to take advantage of the technology themselves, they’ll be able to use it in new, unexpected ways going forward. 

Mixed reality will keep expanding its footprint in the automotive industry, and all panelists agreed that the industry will remain one of the leaders in its developments for years to come.

 

 

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