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Conjuring designs from thin air in a virtual world

Virtual Reality (VR) technology promised to make it possible for designers to ‘see’ new cars, factories and houses before they had been even built. With new high-quality headsets and software, that vision is closer to coming true.

Most designs used to start with an idea, a pen and some paper.

Now, imagine conjuring 3D shapes out of thin air and sharing your life-like designs in real time with people half way around the world.

The whole process of designing a new product becomes faster, cheaper and more effective. VR is finally beginning to fulfil its potential for business.

“You can walk around your sketches so you can see how your lines work in a 3D environment, and move freely in a room,” explains Jan Pflueger, augmented and virtual reality co-ordinator for German car firm Audi.

In the past, the technology – hardware, software, connectivity – simply wasn’t up to the job.

“Designers didn’t like using headsets because the image resolution was too low,” says Mr Pflueger.

Not only were the images poor quality, the headsets were heavy and uncomfortable to wear.

But now that processing speeds have increased and optics tech has improved, we’re reaching the stage where VR is coming close to the limits of what the human eye can perceive.

For example, Audi is working with Finnish start-up Varjo, which has recently starting selling a high-end (€5,995; £5,170) headset boasting “human eye resolution” using a technique called “foveated rendering”.

It uses eye-tracking technology to tell which part of the image you’re focusing on, then concentrates its processing power on that section to render it in high definition.

So you perceive the highest quality without having to process the entire image in high definition for every frame, which would require huge computing resources.

“In the beginning, designers hadn’t been able to view their designs properly, but now they can walk around cars or other objects in life size,” explains Niko Eiden, Varjo chief executive.

And because the image quality is so good, car designers can experiment with different materials for seats, dashboards and so on without having to make expensive physical models, says Mr Pflueger.

“This speeds up the design process because they can make decisions about how designs should be modified at a very early stage,” he adds.


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