Hardware and Software from Autodesk, Silverdraft Drive SIGGRAPH Display

You wouldn't expect the Ford Motor Company to be a marquee exhibitor at SIGGRAPH. But as advances in computing power make it easier to see photoreal renders early in the computer-aided manufacturing processes, Ford is changing the way collaborative automotive design happens.

Elizabeth Baron, the leader of Ford's global VR efforts, was on hand at the show's Emerging Technologies exhibits to demonstrate the Ford immersive Vehicle Environment (FiVE). Baron said FiVE grew out of her conviction that modern visualization technologies could help bridge the gap between 3D models of new car designs that live on a computer screen and physical prototypes that allow designers and executives to interact with a car concept in the real world.

"I had a vision that this technology could give [3D-rendered] models a sense of presence and realism so we could make similar decisions as we would looking at a physical model," Baron told StudioDaily. The result is a virtual environment, rendered through real-time ray-tracing and global illumination, where users can sit down "inside" a car, wearing a VR headset that lets them look at every component of the car's interior.

Watch a video from ElectricTV showing the SIGGRAPH demo in action:

A handheld, motion-tracked "flashlight" lets them take a closer look, shining lights behind the steering wheel, underneath the dashboard, or into various nooks and crannies to get a better sense of the design—it's a surprisingly satisfactory substitute for being able to reach out and touch the car parts. Users can also stand up and walk around outside the car, wielding a motion-tracked pointer that allows it to be sliced horizontally or vertically into visible cross-sections with the flick of a wrist. The view from behind the goggles is projected onto a large screen in 4K so onlookers can get a good view without necessarily putting on the goggles.

A SIGGRAPH attendee checks out the undercarriage. Photo courtesy Silverdraft.

Because the model being used to generate the immersive environment includes all of the car's manufacturing elements, Ford staffers with different stakes in the design can get a good sense for how the parts are being put together. The real-time rendering technology allows variables to be accounted for, too, like time of day. Looking at the car being rendered under different environmental conditions helps team members gauge how light is reflected off various surfaces and check for problem spots, like ugly glare. And, because the heavy model can be stored at Ford offices globally, with position information shared between locations, collaborators in Mexico, Germany, Michigan and elsewhere can simultaneously interact with the same model, enjoying a real-time telephone conversation about what they're seeing.

Baron says that in some ways the project has succeeded beyond her expectations. "What I didn't anticipate was that this has changed our culture," she said. "When we get together [from different geographic locations] it's like a mixer—as if engineers, designers, artists, executives, ergonomics [designers] and headlamp designers are all together in the same room, seeing the same thing at the same time."

Silverdraft Devil Compact SupercomputerFor the SIGGRAPH exhibit, the computing power was boiled down into a highly concentrated form. The demo ran on a Silverdraft Devil Compact Supercomputer with 468 processing cores—that's 26 18-core Intel Xeon E5 V3 2699 processors—892 GB of 2133 MHz RAM, 20 TB of SSD storage, and an Nvidia K6000 graphics card to feed the 4K projector. Silverdraft tells us Ford's data was loaded on the Devil's internal storage, and Autodesk's Vred visualization software ray-traced 120 million polygons a second in 4K resolution at a frame rate between 10 and 15 fps, while simultaneously handling live motion capture (to position the flashlight and pointer correctly in the VR environment). The head-mounted display was powered by a Compact Demon DSPi workstation with an eight-core Intel i7-5960 3.5 GHz processor, 32 GB of 2666 MHz RAM, and a single Nvidia K5200 graphics card.

The results are slick and impressive and, thanks to the tightly packed horsepower of the Devil, surprisingly portable. But Baron is already thinking about the next-generation version of the system, which could include more modeling of sound, for instance, to give participants a better idea of what they might hear inside an actual car. And she raised the possiblity of a mixed-reality implementation that could project high-quality rendered materials onto traditional physical models. "Ford still loves clay," Baron said. "Your eyes can be deceived—of course, some deceptions are your friend, because they hide things you don't want to see. But your eyes can perceive a shape differently, depending on lighting. Your hands can't."