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Elizabeth Baron, an advanced visualization technical specialist at Ford Motor Co., works with a Digital Occupant system. The computer lets Ford solve design issues before prototypes are built.

Technology mimics driver behavior, movement

By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News

DEARBORN — If you think you know what makes a well-designed automotive interior, you don’t know Jack ... or Diane.

They are the stars in a big-screen drama that plays out almost daily here in the high-security confines of Ford Motor Co.’s product development center. The storyline is as old as the auto industry: form vs. function, designer vs. engineer.

But Jack and Diane are adding a third dimension to the debate. Literally.

They’re digital characters that reside in a virtual reality computer. Designers and engineers assume their identities and then act out — in real time, with unprecedented realism — driver behavior that offers new insight into the product development process.

The system, called Digital Occupant, represents the next frontier in automobile design and could give Ford an advantage in the race to build cars faster, better and cheaper than the competition.

Designed by Ford and developed by Electronic Data Systems Corp., Digital Occupant works like this: A test subject is wired with 11 sensors to track body movements. An animated character is generated, immersed in a virtual interior and then projected on a movie screen where his or her comfort level can be observed.

“This brings the voice of the customer inside a vehicle before we build the prototype,” said Elizabeth Baron, an advanced visualization technical specialist at Ford.

In the virtual world created by Ford, the laws of nature can be broken at the whim of engineers.

“(The computer) will take me as a 5-foot-6 female and turn me into a 6-foot-4 male,” Baron said. “Then, I’ll reach for the shifter, and we’ll watch if my knees hit the center stack.”

The computer technology is allowing Ford to build fewer prototype vehicles to resolve the hundreds of engineering and design challenges that arise when vehicles are in development. Because prototype vehicles can cost $100,000 or more, the savings can be significant.

The time required to bring a new model to market is also shortened, which benefits Ford and consumers.

For Ford’s ’05 Freestyle crossover, which goes on sale in September, testing revealed its gearshift lever needed a slight alteration to accommodate clear access to other cockpit controls. And work on the 2004 Jaguar XJ — the flagship of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group — resulted in the reconfiguration of an awkwardly positioned moonroof switch.

Design variations can also be swapped in and out of the virtual vehicles. But not with the detail that would allow for critical analysis of styling features, such as material selection.

That’s one of the trade-offs Ford made to enable the test subject’s movements to appear on screen instantaneously.

“Reality is tough,” said Ulrich Raschke, program manager of human simulation products at a newly formed EDS affiliate, UGS PLM Solutions.

“We’ve had a lot of years to evolve our senses, and there are a lot of nuances to understand. Our concept of what virtual reality should be is really colored a lot by what we see in Hollywood and in video games,” he said. “And we don’t often really appreciate the enormous effort and time required to put the graphics for a feature like (the movie) ‘Titanic’ together.”

For years, the auto industry has used virtual imaging techniques to examine what prospective products would look like under various conditions. General Motors Corp. has its well-known “cave” — a dark room where designers manipulate digital images to examine in detail any vehicle from any angle.

Other companies, such as John Deere, are doing work that is similar to Ford’s, but not yet with the same degree of accuracy and speed.

“The unique thing on Ford was to really include this subjective response,” Raschke said. “Feelings of roominess, sense of quality, emotional tranquility, those types of things.

“What you really need is a system that’s extremely realistic once you’re immersed in it. It really demands something of the graphics system that you can show complex geometry, a lot of geometry, render it very quickly, be able to change a perspective relative to that geometry very quickly and render the humans very quickly, so the virtual figure can follow the motions within the scene.”

Conceived using amn expensive Silicon Graphics software program, Digital Occupant runs on the economical Linux platform. But there are plans to reduce cost further by migrating it to a PC platform.

Max Ortiz / The Detroit News
Elizabeth Baron can control the movements of a virtual car driver of any size and dimension, allowing Ford to make structural changes.
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