Ford uses Oculus tech to test the cars of the future

Facebook made headlines when it purchased virtual reality headset maker Oculus VR Inc this week, but Ford has already found a use for this nascent technology.

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    Software designer Julian Kantor (left), who created "The Recital", takes a picture of Jonathan Feng using the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to experience his program during E3 in Los Angeles, California in this June 12, 2013 file photo. Facebook Inc will acquire two-year-old Oculus VR Inc, a maker of virtual-reality glasses for gaming, for $2 billion, buying its way into the fast-growing wearable devices arena with its first-ever hardware deal.
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Facebook's purchase of OculusVR may be making headlines, but Ford has liked its virtual-reality technology for some time. In its Virtual Reality Immersion Lab, the Dearborn automaker uses Oculus Rift headsets to evaluate the exterior and interior designs of cars that don't exist in the physical world, at least, not yet.

Once they don a headset, engineers can explore virtual vehicles while motion-capture cameras track their movements and coordinate with software to match the digital presentation with their movements in the physical world. This allows Ford to evaluate designs without having to spend time crafting mockups. Engineers can walk around a virtual car to preview its exterior design, or "get in" to see if the interior layout will work once the car leaves the design studio and is put in the hands of customers.

Virtual reality speeds up the design process, Ford says. The Rift system can switch between different lighting conditions so engineers can see, for example, how a car will look in bright sunlight and compare it to how it would look on a cloudy day. Employees in Dearborn can also link with counterparts in Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, and India, keeping everyone on the same page.

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The technology also gives Ford engineers X-ray vision. They can--virtually--see through a vehicle's structure, which helps when making decisions about the packaging of mechanical hardware, and changes to the design that might interfere with hard points.

So while it's unclear what Facebook's plans for Oculus are, it seems Ford has found plenty of use for virtual reality.

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