Virtual reality and its applications in transport design

Filip Maukš


This article focuses on the use of virtual and mixed reality in transport design. The advancement in virtual reality hardware and software also enables more extensive use of this technology in the design process. The possibility to visualize new designs in real scale is especially useful with larger objects, such as cars and motorbikes, in case of which the preparation of a physical model would require a significant amount of resources and work hours.

Another advantage of virtual reality is the wide range of options for data configuration. 3D data of a new car exterior can be visualized through VR software in various colours and materials. Models can be placed and viewed in a studio or any outdoor environment. It is also possible to change individual shapes and elements in real time (e.g. lights, bumpers, etc.) and thus review design variants in a faster and more efficient manner. We can come across similar configurators on the websites of car manufacturers, where a customer can give exact specifications, based on which the configurator generates a rendering of the new car’s exterior and interior.

A car interior must be shaped to accommodate ergonomic requirements of a human body and, what is more, it also comprises user interface for human-machine interaction. When testing car interior designs in virtual reality, an ergonomically adjustable construction – a simulator is used. Modular simulators offer various levels of complexity. They include seats, a steering wheel, pedals, various parts of a dashboard, etc. All these elements are adjustable according to the manufacturer’s car model portfolios. The primary feature of the simulator is its synchronization with virtual data. The person sitting inside the simulator can experience the new design in virtual reality and they are able to interact with it through the physical simulator. In this mixed reality scenario, virtual steering wheel lines up with its physical counterpart to provide haptic feedback. The technology that combines the physical simulator with 3D digital data is applied in the author’s doctoral thesis to visualize new motorcycle designs. A variable motorcycle simulator was constructed for the purpose of simulating ergonomics of various types of motorcycles.

The first section of the article contains an overview on virtual reality technology. It classifies virtual and mixed reality in the reality – virtuality continuum and provides examples of other interactions between the real world and virtual data. HTC and Oculus are companies that brought VR headsets to consumer market and introduced virtual reality to the general public. The combination of a HTC Vive headset with a HTC Tracker is used in the doctoral thesis to create mixed reality. The increase in the sales of VR hardware, such as VR headsets, goes hand in hand with software development. Gaming engines like Unreal Engine and Unity, originally developed for creating computer games, are now used in automotive industry. This software combines quality visualizations with the ability to program material configurators, door animations, interior mood light changes and many other features.

The section on “VR in Transport Design” presents practical and also conceptual examples of virtual reality application in development process. Virtual reality has mainly been used as a visualization tool for models in the development or for final presentations. However, VR tools are becoming more suited for creative work, like capturing initial ideas or creating multiple variations of a design. In this field, sketching by hand using paper and pen or a graphic tablet is still prevalent. VR modelling software (e.g. Gravity Sketch) provides the option to sketch in virtual reality. The user is able to capture an idea of a design directly in 3D space.

“Research by Design” summarizes the results from the process of motorcycle design using VR tools. First, a variable construction was built to simulate different ergonomic types of motorcycles. The simulator was then synchronized with the digital data of an electric sports bike and visualized in Unreal Engine software, in which a configurator for changing body and wheel colours was programmed. In the subsequent experiment, the simulator was incorporated into VR modelling software Gravity Sketch. The sketching a motorcycle in real scale and with the aid of a physical simulator allowed for testing and “sitting” on a new design motorcycle from the perspective of a rider.

Keywords: virtual reality, mixed reality, motorbike, configurator, transport, design, simulator