Paul Rutter discusses the impact of the latest generation of VR technology

Published on: 23rd February 2017

Design looks set to enter the virtual world, particularly the design of transportation interiors. Paul Rutter, DCA’s Transport Sector Manager, believes the exciting opportunities that exist when working in a digital environment have come of age with the recent introduction of the second generation of Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and the Samsung Gear VR, lifting this technology out of the gaming arena and positioning it to deliver real commercial value on transportation interior development programmes.

The promise of Virtual Reality, is set to change the way we present ideas and accelerate the design process, reducing the time from inception to physical reality. As designers we are familiar with creating and visualising ideas in the virtual world of our imaginations. Now as we develop our ideas using three dimensional computer models we can bring them to life in a way that can draw a far wider range of stakeholders into the design process much earlier than is currently possible.

The quality of virtual presentations allows us to immerse ourselves and other project stakeholders in our designs and engage in a way that, until now, required a full size mock up. The beauty of a virtual presentation is the ability to see colour, form and proportion as it will be in the final vehicle without committing to physical prototypes. We can interact with the virtual space using hand controllers and teleport at will, moving instantly from one part of the interior space to another in the virtual world.

In a recent project with Hitachi, DCA supported the design of a new train cab by modelling the design in SolidWorks. The first interaction with the cab design was a very basic foam card and mdf mock up. This quickly established the position of key touch points, the driver’s seat position and the internal gangway arrangement through physical interaction with the mock up space. At the same time the SolidWorks model was imported into a virtual reality software engine which gave a very realistic demonstration of the production intent. By combining these two tools we were able to achieve stakeholder approval and NOBO compliance without having to produce a representative full size mock up of the cab design. This was particularly impressive given the relatively radical nature of this cab layout.

What we learnt from this process was that the best way to interact with the design, from a human factors perspective, was through the use of a simple cab mock up. Changes could be made very quickly, quantative human factors assessment measurements could be made and ideas evaluated with a real sense of what will work in practise. 

When presenting the cab as the finished design, however, the virtual reality environment conveyed what it would actually look like. To achieve this with a physical mock up would have required a lengthy design and build phase which would have slowed down the design process because decisions and in particular design sign-off would almost certainly have been postponed until the mock up was finished.

In our latest interior design projects, we are looking to introduce VR into the design process even earlier.  By creating VR environments to represent a range of design alternatives, especially for different interior layouts, colour schemes, fabrics and lighting arrangements, we can encourage stakeholders to fully engage with design decisions at the conceptual phase of the project.

We are also looking to build on our experience from the above cab project to combine VR with low resolution spatial models to provide an augmented reality which will allow accurate human factors assessments to be carried out directly in a visually representative environment without committing to the time and expense of a full physical mock up.

The debate over the relative merits of VR and mock up is filled with self-interests and partisan views.  Traditional model making organisations naturally favour mock ups, while newer technology companies champion VR.  At DCA we have expertise in both fields so we can take a more objective position.  We see the two technologies as complementary rather than competitive.  Combining their strengths streamlines the design process and delivers better solutions through deeper stakeholder involvement in the early project stages.