Convincing 3D environments for automotive designers are becoming more sophisticated thanks to advances in data modelling technology

As if any more proof were needed of the sophistication with which computer technology can now elaborate ‘reality’, take a look at the BBC trailer for its Radio 2 programme. Here some 1970s footage of Elvis has been seamlessly blended with other archive material and modern custom shots to show Elvis alongside Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, Sheryl Crow, Noel Gallagher and the Sugababes, seemingly together in a virtual supergroup.

As anyone working closely with virtual reality (VR) and visualisation applications knows, the auto industry has been doing this kind of thing for years. Using tools from Alias (now owned by Autodesk), photo-realistic images have been available from computer models since the 1980s, and often these have been animated within ‘real’ scenery.

In the early days, the cost of entry for this kind of software was very high and restricted to the well-heeled automotive OEMs only – not any more.

Virtalis vision

Virtalis, a leading specialist visualisation company, has developed the Virtalis Visionary Framework, a technology to get more value from PC clustering. Although what is known as the Visionary Cluster can act on its own, it can also be harnessed to a high end, visualisation software called Division MockUp from Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC). Working in tandem in this way facilitates the manipulation of large data models. As the new Visionary Cluster system requires off-the-shelf PCs, rather than the traditional supercomputer often expected of 3D visualisation, both purchase and maintenance costs are exceedingly low.

David Cockburn-Price, Virtalis’ Managing Director, comments: “Last year, Virtalis moved into the Gold Tier of the PTC Partner Advantage Program and was recognised as a preferred supplier for the company’s advanced visualisation. Virtalis is a Gold Partner of PTC. Since then, Virtalis has revamped the prestigious PTC Corporate Visit Center theatre, so that it now boasts the latest in PC clustering technology. By taking Division MockUp and giving it the ability to be run from a Virtalis PC Visionary Cluster, advanced visualisation is easier to achieve and more accessible than ever before.”

Multiple viewing environment

The Virtalis Visionary Framework creates a seamless integration between Division MockUp and the cluster. The solution is also scalable, with as many PCs as are required capable of running both large-scale, projected environments as well as headset-wearing, fully tracked individual viewing.

The same model can then be explored simultaneously by both the head-mounted display (HMD) wearing individual and a group to whom the images are projected in 3D.

Andrew Connell, Technical Director at Virtalis, explains: “Our whole system will work out at roughly the cost of one to two year’s support for a supercomputer, never mind its original cost, and will have low running costs. We have written a module that allows multiple PCs to drive large, complex displays at maximum performance. By linking our system to Division MockUp, our Virtalis Visionary Cluster is capable of everything that a supercomputer is capable of – blending, geometric distortion correction and image compositing. In fact, our graphics performance is even higher, because we have been able to take advantage of the latest in graphics card technology. It is not all about speed either. The visuals are stunning because our clients can now take advantage of advanced techniques, such as Open GL shaders.”

Company applications

Fiat/Elasis, the design subsidiary of Alfa Romeo and Fiat, has been one of the first Virtalis customers to take advantage of the new technology. Gennaro Monacelli, Manager of the MSP Group at Elasis, explains: “We have our projected VR environment running at the same time as someone immersed and fully tracked in an HMD as part of the shared model. Meanwhile, the audience viewing the 3D projected images can see different views on cameras of the tracked individual working inside the virtual model. All of this is supported by the PC-based Virtalis Visionary Cluster working with Division MockUp.”

Virtalis believes its breakthrough will yield great interest from universities and companies involved in engineering design. Such organisations use large-scale visualisation systems powered by multi-pipe UNIX workstations and operate in sectors where data sets are becoming bigger and more complex. As with the other Virtalis StereoWorks products, the Visionary System supports the playback of multi-channel, high definition stereo films using Virtalis’ StereoServer software. Virtalis has also written numerous device drivers, so that VR peripherals can be used in conjunction with the system. These include Immersion’s Cybergloves and the latest trackers from Ascension, Intersense and Polhemus. Polhemus is the industry leader of 6 Degree-of-Freedom (6DOF) motion tracking, digitizing, eye-tracking and handheld 3D scanners, using the latest electro-magnetic technology.

Subtle advance

A giant leap forward in the realism of VR may be just around the corner as a team of European researchers adds textures, lighting effects and ‘feel’ to computer-generated 3D models.

Launched in 2002, the RealReflect project was the first attempt to use a new image acquisition technique known as Bi-directional Texture Function (BTF), which captures the look and feel of different materials.

The project partners have geared their work toward the automobile sector, where the system could revolutionise the development of new models of vehicles by dramatically cutting costs and time.

“RealReflect is a major advancement over traditional virtual reality modelling, which basically relies on simplifications of reality by describing optical properties of a surface by a 2D matrix of data that does not show the real effects of lighting,” explains Project Coordinator Attila Neumann at the Technical University of Vienna.

“Traditional virtual reality modelling, despite its name, lacks the feeling of reality and is a poor representation of it because the way things look depends highly on how they are illuminated and from what direction they are being viewed.”

By taking those two aspects – lighting and viewing direction – into account, the RealReflect system is capable of acquiring and rendering in VR even the most subtle textures, from leather on a car seat and wood panelling on a dashboard to metallic paint or chrome on door handles. Textures can be acquired from physical samples and then rendered onto the 3D models.

“It is a much more powerful and demanding system than traditional virtual reality modelling, making it look real instead of simply believable,” says Neumann.

Cave dwelling

That in turn brings with it additional complications. To be able to realistically represent textures, the system requires a thousand times more data than other VR modelling tools, leading the project partners to develop compression techniques for the BTF information. The compression allows the models to be viewed and worked on in real time. “It would be pointless having all this data if it filled up your hard drive and proved impossible to manipulate,” says Neumann.

The overall result is a 3D modelling tool that permits immersive reality, especially when visualised in a ‘cave’: a cube-shaped VR simulator that users can walk inside and see everything in 3D.

“I could go into a cave and sit in a car seat and see the car around me, it would be like being inside the vehicle. I could look at the finish of the dashboard, the position of the gear stick, the material used on the seats,” Neumann explains.

“When a car company wants to make a new model, around 50 prototypes of different designs are built. Of those, most will be rejected before the company reaches the final stage of choosing a model from maybe five examples,” says Neumann.

“With RealReflect there would be no need to produce 50 physical prototypes as they could be created and viewed virtually, requiring maybe only five or ten real prototypes (or even less) to be produced.”

That translates into enormous cost savings for car manufacturers and reduces the time it takes to bring a new model to market. “To date, 3D models have only been used from an engineering perspective, never to actually verify what the vehicle looks like – with RealReflect that can be achieved accurately,” says Neumann.

Speed and accuracy

Bunkspeed, the fastest growing provider of high-end visualisation software and services, is providing this kind of realistic rendering for the Ford. Ford has selected Bunkspeed’s software solutions to be implemented globally in the product design and development process. The initial agreement for 150 licenses of software for Ford and all its subsidiaries, including Volvo, Land Rover, Jaguar, Aston Martin, as well as Mazda, is expected to grow significantly as deployment is completed.

Ford chose Bunkspeed because it needed an open and easy-to-use system that allowed the design and development team to visualise many concepts or themes in real-time, in motion, and in a variety of environments, including those with simulated natural light. In addition, Bunkspeed solutions easily and effectively support collaborative design reviews across multiple locations.

“The old way was to make sketches and then turn the sketches into physical models by sculpting clay,” says Peter Horbury, Executive Director, North American Design for Ford. “Now, we can go from the sketch straight into a computer model, exploring different wheel sizes, colours and design details.”

“The data we create on the computer can be transmitted to all other departments simultaneously,” says Horbury. “So the engineers aren’t waiting for us to measure our clay models and translate that into a surface. It just becomes automatic. We can change the environment, change the lighting conditions, and see the vehicle in action. It makes a big difference when you see how the reflections shift across the surfaces.”

According to Ford Motor Company: “The speed and accuracy delivered via the Bunkspeed system translates into significant time saved in the design process. Designers can also share information quicker.”

Since its foundation in 2002, Bunkspeed has been working closely with Ford and the Premier Automotive Group. The overall capabilities and ease-of-use of Bunkspeed’s solutions have compelled many design departments in the industry to rethink their design development workflow. By reducing the dependencies on physical prototypes, companies are finally realising significant cost savings throughout their design processes.

Advanced simulation award

Ford has also been selected by CEI as winner of its 2006 ExtremeSim award for outstanding use of advanced simulation technologies in the automotive industry. CEI is a leading supplier of engineering simulation solutions, including Harpoon meshing and EnSight visualisation software.

“In its divisions throughout the world, Ford is using extreme meshing and visualisation solutions to see and interact with product designs in new and exciting ways,” says Kent Misegades, CEI President. “CEI is proud to be a part of Ford’s innovative work.” CEI’s Reveal, a new 3D geometry player based on the Hierarchical Data Format (HDF), enables users to view, analyse and manipulate visualisation scenarios created in EnSight or other applications based on Apex, CEI’s framework for cross-platform graphics development.

Reveal spreads the power of extreme visualisation across the enterprise. Engineers and scientists can import multiple scenarios from EnSight into Reveal to share selected visualisations with colleagues, partners, customers and others. The actual Reveal application can be embedded into the file, requiring no downloading or licensing for those receiving the visualisation.

A simple interface in Reveal acts like an on-screen DVD player, making it easy for anyone to view 3D models from different perspectives, manipulate them as allowed by the creator of the visualisation, run a variety of 3D animations. Notes for collaborative work can be added over the Internet and through popular applications such as Microsoft PowerPoint. Models and animations can be viewed in full-screen and 3D stereo modes.

Marketing photo-realism

Photo-realistic imaging is being developed by creative marketing agencies on opposite sides of the globe to promote vehicle brands without the use of traditional photography. London facility Firstbase and Australiabased Leapfrog Strategic Communications were tasked by Saatchi & Saatchi with producing photo-realistic digital images to be used in separate campaigns for Toyota and Lexus.

Photo-realistic 3D rendering hardware from ART VPS was chosen by both agencies to accurately visualise the vehicles. The specialised ray tracing technology enabled the two agencies to recreate accurately the fine level of detail required in the creation of automotive advertising imagery.

John Whillock, 3D consultant at Firstbase, says: “ARTVPS’ 3D rendering technology enables us to create truly photo-realistic images that even a trained eye would have difficulty spotting as fake. By creating photo-realistic images within our studio, we can eliminate the need to transport expensive vehicles to remote photo shoots and have the creative freedom to place vehicles in a variety of environments to meet any advertising brief.”

Leapfrog used ART VPS’ PURE card to generate photorealistic images for the campaign. The PCI-X rendering card provided a high performance desktop 3D rendering system that was perfect for use in a small advertising and design studio.

Trevor Coates, owner of Leapfrog, says: “There are three incredibly important things that sell the authenticity of car images to design agencies: the naturalness of the tyre rubber, the quality of wheel finish and crucially the refractive/reflective nuances in the headlights, indicators and brake lights. Without appropriate detail in these areas it wouldn’t matter how deep the paint or how beautifully placed a car was, the image would still look like a cheap render. ART VPS technology addresses these areas and provides truly realistic results every time.”

Visualisation and VR has come a long way. What used to require dedicated supercomputers can now be preformed far better on very modest hardware. The ‘modernise or die’ mantra can now be more effectively substituted by ‘simulate or die’, particularly as it getting cheaper, easier and more rigorous.