Volvo, with a big assist from Microsoft, is creating physical objects that are not physical. Confused? So was I until I strapped a $5,000 computer on my head and entered into the world of augmented reality (AR).
Volvo's initial step using Microsoft's HoloLens, the world's first fully untethered holographic computer, was at dealerships and auto shows to give customers a 3-D experience with its end products. Its next step with AR is putting it into the hands of the people who are shaping the automaker's future. About 15 engineers are already using the HoloLens goggles to help them speed up the development of new models, new components and new in-car features.
"When we show it to engineers they are ecstatic about the potential," said Loris Cwyl, who is a team manager and business developer on Volvo's digital & connectivity consumer services unit. Cwyl leads a team of eight software developers who have created something Volvo's engineers say helps them solve problems faster than ever. It's easy to understand why.
The HoloLens makes it possible to not only see a hologram of the specific part, in our case it was the dual turbocharger and the exhaust system in the XC90, but you can twist it, turn it and as you get closer to the object you literally go inside the part to see how it is constructed. The level of detail is phenomenal. The reason engineers are so excited to use the technology is because the parts are exact representations of what is in the vehicles. That is why it is possible to have a physical object that is not really a physical object.
What I found most fascinating about the technology was how easy it was to use. After Cwyl gave me a 3-minute briefing I was ready to start interacting with the object. It was completely intuitive. "The learning curve is much shorter," Cwyl said. "You can immediately start using this tool."
Cwyl was quick to stress that Volvo will not create an app for engineers to use the tool or require a tablet computer to activate the AR functions. "Any device you have that can connect to a web browser will be capable of steering this," he said.
One of the biggest benefits is that the tool can immediately bridge gaps between engineers and designers, or engineers and the sales and marketing team, because it is possible for each person, regardless of his or her background, to get and give feedback about the object in real time – even though the object isn't really there.
Volvo sees potential
"This is still a prototype but we already see multiple business cases," Cwyl said. Volvo said that it will not replace physical models with AR versions. It will use this as one of the tools to speed up development and provide validation.
The key is that it enhances collaboration between parts of the business that really didn’t have a true middle ground before. Even a person with virtually zero engineering experience -- such as myself -- could probably at least be able to fathom why certain engineering decisions have to be made, and, with this new-found ability to see through steel and rotate a 100kg part with a twist of the finger, I might even be able to provide a decent suggestion to help solve a problem.
That level of idea sharing can only benefit Volvo as it produces future models in as little as 20 months, which is the automaker's goal. It probably won't be long before other automakers follow Volvo and start using augmented reality as a vehicle development tool. It would be difficult to imagine a better way to make engineers' lives a little easier. We all know, however, that in a matter of a few years today's mind-boggling leap forward will look more dated than a rotary telephone.