TURIN - Virtual reality is becoming an essential tool for car designers. But final styling decisions will always be based on a full-size model, say leading Italian styling houses.
Many car companies now begin design evaluations with virtual reality proposals. It allows them to show a variety of possible design alternatives.
The proposals take about the same amount of time to prepare as two-dimensional drawings. But they substantially reduce the number of modifications needed to create a full-size model.
'From paper to reality, you will always find surprises and things to fix,' said Sergio Pininfarina, chairman of the Pininfarina group. 'To develop a two-dimensional drawing into the three dimensions of a real model has always been the biggest pain for a designer.'
Pininfarina has seen an evolution of design methods since his father Battista 'Pinin' Farina ran the famed Italian coachbuilder.
'In my father's times, the color renderings were exquisite - more like canvases than cars, almost works of art,' said Pininfarina. 'But they were almost entirely useless. The perspective had been altered so that the viewer got a sensation, an impression of the car - not a detailed picture of the product.
'As we gradually improved our rendering technique, we moved away from free-end perspectives to nose, side and tail views, to reveal the car in its entirety. It was a step ahead, but we still found surprises when we stood in front of the real [three dimensional] thing.'
Pininfarina started to use virtual reality design extensively five years ago.
'Now we can obtain a perfect image of an object which still does not exist,' said Sergio Pininfarina. 'But even so, we still encounter surprises when the full-size model is built. We often need to change minor details, but occasionally also major parts of the car.'
Fabrizio Giugiaro, head of the Styling and Models division of Italdesign-Giugiaro SpA, is a newcomer to virtual reality design.
'Our center began to work with virtual reality in January 2000,' he said, 'and we are still in the process of learning.'
But even at this early stage, Giugiaro is 'stunned by the savings we can make in terms of modifications on full-size models.
'With the traditional design process, we may have had to modify 30-40 percent of the car at full-size model stage,' he said. 'Even when everything was going well, we would have to modify 20-25 percent of the model. Thanks to virtual reality, this figure is now down to 5-10 percent.'
Giugiaro said another advantage of virtual reality is the ability to modify a styling proposal in real time, according to the tastes of the individual customer.
'In our experience, virtual reality does not reduce the number of physical models you build later,' he said. 'Sometimes you have to build more.
'In the past, many customers chose only one proposal to be built in three dimensions,' Giugiaro said. 'Now there are cases where they prefer seeing three or four full-size virtual proposals, and they decide to build two physical models.'
Leonardo Fioravanti, head of Fioravanti Srl, an independent studio, is a virtual reality veteran.
'Twenty years ago I followed the first research projects sponsored by CNR, the Italian National Research Institute, to introduce virtual reality both to car design and to aerodynamic research,' Fioravanti said. 'But virtual reality has only become an everyday tool in recent years. Its potential is really exceptional and it is still not yet fully exploited.'
Fioravanti said virtual reality makes it easier to decide which design proposal should be developed. 'But for the final decision, a real model - in a real environment, with air and sunlight - is fundamental,' he said.
Many Italian design houses have added virtual reality systems in response to customer demands.
Fabrizio Giugiaro said his company has been pushed into adopting virtual reality design technology by Fiat Auto.
'We have also discovered that our virtual reality technology is more advanced than some of the systems European volume automakers have in their own styling centers,' said Giugiaro. 'But we don't see such an interest in the new technology from the Japanese. That is a surprise considering Japan is such a technologically advanced nation.'
Other Italian designers are also embracing virtual reality technology. A spokesman for Carrozzeria Bertone SpA said: 'We are currently working to create our own virtual reality center. We have also been asked by some clients to offer virtual presentations, which we have subcontracted out to external suppliers such as Carcerano (see story below).
'But it is difficult to generalize,' the spokesman said. 'There are some customers who consider virtual presentations to be a key part of a design project, but others do not even want to see a single virtual design proposal.'