Wolfsburg, Germany - Computer engineer Frank Ostermann walks around a quarter-scale model of a Volkswagen Golf, checking it from every angle, then changes its wheels, replaces the tail-lights and modifies the wing mirrors - using voice commands and gestures to change the design in a matter of seconds.
The model is real, the design changes are virtual. What makes that possible are "HoloLens" mixed-reality goggles, developed by Microsoft to project virtual content onto a physical object, and software developed at Volkswagen's Virtual Engineering lab.
Ostermann need only point his finger and the HoloLens shows a different paint colour on the model, installs different wheels and modifies the wheel-arches fenders. What was an R- Line model suddenly becomes an entirely new version.
Ostermann (52) heads the Virtual Engineering Lab, one of five in Wolfsburg, Berlin, Munich and San Francisco, with a sixth just starting up in Barcelona. These are where Volkswagen geeks are creating new solutions for big data, the Internet of things, connectivity, mobility services and virtual reality.
Ostermann said: “We have been using virtual and augmented reality for some time, mainly to get a three-dimensional view of an image. But now we’re taking a big step forward, using it as a tool for technical development.
“This will allow our engineers to work on a scale mode of a new vehicle, change its equipment as they want, even design new components - and see the results immediately. We’re already close to the first new vehicle concepts and design studies."
Science fiction becomes the new reality
Augmented and virtual reality help save time and development costs, making each step in the process faster and more efficient. The HoloLens, for example, not only projects each design or equipment change directly onto the physical model, it also allows teams from different labs to work on one project at the same.
Everybody sees the same image in their HoloLens goggles - a project engineer in Chattanooga will be able to walk around the image and check out changes made by a designer in Shanghai - which could make time-consuming reworking of clay models a thing of the past.
The HoloLens software is still in the trial phase but in future it will enable users to call up any Volkswagen model and present different body versions - transforming a sedan into an SUV, a station wagon, a convertible or a coupé.
"Just a few years ago, this was all science fiction," said Ostermann. "Now we know this is how we will be developing our next models."