Ford Brings Mixed Reality Into Car Design With Microsoft HoloLens

Ford is accelerating the automotive design process with the Microsoft HoloLens virtual reality headset after a year-long pilot program.

HoloLen Automotive Design

Coming off a year-long pilot program, Microsoft and Ford have taken the wraps off a collaboration between the two companies that will help the automaker's designers get their creations on the road faster by using HoloLens.

Microsoft's HoloLens is a standalone headset with augmented-reality capabilities that works independently of a PC, unlike most of today's virtual reality (VR) headsets that require a physical connection to a computing device. Although it can power some new and novel entertainment experiences, Microsoft has been focused mainly on getting HoloLens into the hands of enterprise users who can afford its $3,000 price tag.

Some of those users now include the craftsmen and women at Ford.

"With HoloLens, Ford designers are blending 3D holograms digitally with both clay models and physical production vehicles," wrote Lorraine Bardeen, general manager of Microsoft HoloLens and Windows Experiences, in a Sept. 20 blog post. "This allows designers to experiment much more quickly without having to physically build every design prototype in clay, which can limit creativity with longer steps. This new technology allows them to create and iterate more freely and quickly."

In an accompanying video, Microsoft and Ford showed how HoloLens allows users to overlay full-scale concepts over existing physical models in 3D space, helping them fine-tune their designs with fewer physical prototypes.

While designing a side mirror, for example, workers can immediately see the new mirror's effects on visibility and adjust its shape in real-time, well before tests further down the design pipeline reveal problems and rack up expenses. In terms of collaboration, workers can share ideas and provide feedback by attaching voice notes to the mixed-reality experience provided by HoloLens.

Currently, Ford is creating HoloLens apps that will be used in a production environment and influence the design of future vehicles from the company, perhaps even those that don't necessarily require a driver.

"If HoloLens can help us test ideas without worrying about the cost of expensive clay models or prototypes, then we can liberate teams to be as creative as possible during the design process so they ultimately can bring better-looking cars to our customers," blogged Jim Holland, vice president of Vehicle Components and Systems Engineering at Ford. "As the world changes, we need to be able to see and understand how our customers will move around in the future. A world filled with autonomous vehicles, for example, poses a variety of design challenges — and we need to make sure our customers have great experiences."

Microsoft isn't the only IT giant helping the automotive industry take a high-tech turn.

In June, IBM announced that its Bluemix cloud platform will connect with BMW's CarData platform to foster a new ecosystem of connected car services. Data gathered by BMW vehicles is hosted and analyzed by Watson IoT, allowing authorized third parties such as auto mechanics and car insurers to use that data to provide tailored customer experiences.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the Internet.com network of...