How virtual reality is revolutionising automotive design

Hayley Everett

Hayley Everett finds out how virtual reality (VR) technology is transforming the automotive design process at Hyundai

As modern design technologies evolve and become increasingly digitalised, designers are granted more freedom to experiment without the costs and lead times associated with more traditional methods. Advances in the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and VR have supported the digital transformation of the automotive industry in recent years, particularly within the product design process of new vehicles, systems and components.

Hyundai is one such automotive manufacturer that has embraced digitalisation of the design process, favouring technologically advanced tools such as 3D digital design software over the conventional time- and cost-intensive approach of producing scale clay models.

The firm’s designers work with industry-standard software reprogrammed to enable collaborative working across multi-user and multi-location environments. Using this, the designers can create models and immersive environments in VR that mimic the real thing in near-perfect fashion, greatly speeding up the design process.

Simon Loasby joined Hyundai as director of design in China in 2017, where he played an integral role in defining the firm’s design identity in the country. Since 2019, he has continued to spearhead the revolution of the firm’s design approach as head of styling at Hyundai’s global R&D and Design Centre in Namyang, Korea.

According to Loasby, the automaker’s digital design process can be broken down into five essential elements, the first of which is collaborative creativity within design and with all other functions and regions of the company. Innovative storytelling and strategic vision briefing are also vital to the design process, as is the use of all appropriate 2D, virtual and 3D tools available through the firm’s design software.

“As VR technology, hardware and software improve, the ability for the designer to design within the virtual space is enhanced,” he says. “This enables true 3D design whilst walking around a virtual 1:1 model.”

The VR Revolution

Hyundai’s digital design software is powered by laptops designed for high-performance gaming so it can handle 3D graphics, motion technology from the film industry and various innovations taken from the sports sectors.

After several years of development, the company has fully implemented its VR design evaluation system, which simulates many aspects relating to a model under development, including interior and exterior design elements, lighting, colours and materials. In essence, the system enables Hyundai’s designers across the globe to review a multitude of design concepts earlier in the developmental process in ways that were previously physically impossible.

Teams in the company’s Europe, Korea, China, India, Japan and USA locations can simultaneously undertake vehicle design quality assessments and development verification processes in real-time, fostering cross-team and intercontinental collaboration on a
whole new level.

Sketching in 3D

A vital element of Hyundai’s VR design software is its gravity sketching tool, which enables engineers to create more human-centric vehicle designs by working in 3D from the start of the design process. Swapping their paper and pencils for a VR headset and controllers, designers can imitate gestural interactions through motion tracking, experiment with different proportions, and build design variations based on their ideas.

Offering a 360° view of the vehicle, the tool enables designers to sketch from any angle, overcoming limitations imposed by traditional 2D processes. 3D gravity sketching also enhances the collaboration between Hyundai’s exterior and interior designers, enabling both teams to work together simultaneously. This allows the company’s exterior designers to refine the digital model of the vehicle at the same time the interior designers can virtually step inside the car to develop features and make adjustments.

“The increased speed and immersion of VR technology enables faster and more efficient collaboration and analysis with our engineering colleagues, and the software also allows for better and faster manufacturing simulation,” Loasby explains. “Better VR visualisation allows for fast and immersive sharing of the design direction globally across our organisation.”

Improving Sustainability Of Design Processes

An additional advantage of Hyundai’s VR capabilities is that they allow the firm’s designers to test an unlimited number of colour and material possibilities. Not only does this save time during the design process, but it also reduces associated shipping and travelling costs and leads to considerably less waste being produced, says Loasby.

“Digital design tools improve the sustainability of the design process by reducing time loss and cost due to travel, which also enables us to reduce our carbon footprint,” he adds. “The process also saves time and reduces waste, as we have considerably reduced the amount of physical design models we make.”

With Hyundai’s engineers no longer racking up thousands of air miles by travelling to and from its many locations, the company believes its VR conference space will aid it in achieving its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045.

Designing The SEVEN

In 2021 the company unveiled its first fully digitally designed concept car model, the SEVEN. The model was developed using the firm’s immersive VR system, which negated the need for physical models at vision reviews and made use of the system’s multi-user wireless remote location design offering.

“The VR process enabled the interior to be developed 80% virtually with very low physical modelling costs,” Loasby explains. “The process also enabled immersive collaboration between European and Namyang design studios in delivering the interior.”

The company’s teams in Europe, Korea and the USA were able to design the model together in the VR space during the Covid-19 pandemic, and instead of producing a multitude of scale clay models throughout the design process, the designers were able to produce just one clay model for verification at the end. In fact, the teams completed the virtual sign-off for the entire vehicle before Loasby had seen a single physical model.

“Ultimately, this allowed us to save time, reduce travel and carbon footprint, reduce waste, lessen the cost of building physical models and collaborate on a global level,” he adds.

By embracing the latest innovations in VR, automotive firms can overhaul their design processes to develop models with boundary-pushing features, while streamlining the digital process can greatly speed up vehicle development. As VR technology continues to advance, it will inevitably open up a host of new opportunities for automotive design engineers.