Can Holograms Shape the Future of Car Design?

Jim Holland, Ford Vice President, Vehicle Components and Systems Engineering

Great design makes it easy to fall in love. When perfected in the automotive world, sleek lines and audacious curves merge to create timeless design that sinks its hooks into you as soon as you lay your eyes on a vehicle.

But much like every other aspect of the industry, electrified and autonomous vehicles are quickly bringing about great change and with design, this is no different. How do battery electric vehicles change the experience of driving? How will not driving change the experience of commuting to work? At Ford, we believe design will be even more important in these fast-changing times.

That’s why we at Ford are investing significantly in exciting products, including the expansion of our design team to 750 — up from 500 — during the past seven years. We also are evolving our design process by giving our team innovative tools to create stylish designs that are more focused on human experiences and help us bring new vehicles to market in a more timely fashion.

Just recently, we successfully concluded a year-long pilot of the innovative Microsoft HoloLens technology. With this untethered, mobile mixed reality headset, our designers can go a step beyond thinking about customer needs and actually view our vehicles as a customer would see and experience it — at any point in the design process.

This will help us speed up a process that isn’t exactly novel, but is absolutely crucial: Always putting people first. It sounds obvious, but it’s something that is easy to lose sight of in pursuit of innovation and novelty. It is one thing to get caught up in ideas that look great; it is another to empathize with your customers and see things exactly as they see them.

This is called design-thinking, and it’s redefining our culture and processes across our global organization to ensure we are putting people at the center of our work. Are we asking the right questions? Did we identify real problems they want solved? Making sure people are always at the center of the design process is critical to creating vehicles and features that are practically and aesthetically appealing.

HoloLens technology features a headset that allows designers and engineers to see digital designs and parts as if they were part of a physical vehicle — as if they themselves were a customer perusing different design options.

The headset projects holographic images onto the user’s field of view. It then uses sensors to keep those images in place as the user changes their viewing angle, or as they physically walk around a clay model or vehicle. The headset also lets designers quickly scroll through multiple design options with a simple hand motion, making it easy for teams to analyze grille designs or side mirrors in a matter of minutes or hours.

It’s hard to overstate how radical this is. When developing a computer-designed part or crafting a full-size clay model, it could take days or weeks to finally look at what the designer wanted to see. Even the sketching process can soak up weeks of work before the team moves forward with an idea or determines it might not be feasible.

With a vehicle’s side mirror, for example, we can use HoloLens to adjust the mirror size and shape in near-real time. At the same time, engineers can see through the headsets what drivers see when they look through the mirrors. All of a sudden, our engineers do not have to create a physical model to investigate visibility — something that usually takes days or weeks –to understand the visibility implications of its design.

With HoloLens, we can go from a digital creation to looking at it in full scale and analyzing its effects much, much faster. We can look at the hologram blended with the vehicle in any direction, too — that’s not something you can do on a computer screen.

This more efficient process could help Ford develop much tighter feedback loops during the design process, which frankly involves a lot of failure — failing fast, failing early and, ideally, failing cheaply. The faster we can try out new ideas, the faster we can discover whether they work or whether they truly meet the needs of customers. If HoloLens can help us test ideas without worrying about the cost of expensive clay models or prototypes, then we can liberate teams to be as creative as possible during the design process so they ultimately can bring better-looking cars to our customers.

As the world changes, we need to be able to see and understand how our customers will move around in the future. A world filled with autonomous vehicles, for example, poses a variety of design challenges — and we need to make sure our customers have great experiences.

In the new world of transportation, we believe design will be an even more crucial differentiator as people evaluate the best way to travel and move freely. We put the world on wheels and even as the world moves away from driving, we’re trying to cover all possible angles — even if that means digitally projecting them onto our cars.

Read More: Lorraine Bardeen, general manager, Microsoft HoloLens and Windows Experience Microsoft, explains more about how Microsoft is shaping the digital transformation of workplaces through new innovations such as HoloLens.