Facebook's purchase of OculusVR may be making headlines, but Ford has liked similar virtual reality technology for some time. In its Virtual Reality Immersion Lab, the Dearborn automaker uses headsets similar to those from Oculus Rift to evaluate the exterior and interior designs of cars that don't exist in the physical world, at least, not yet. The headsets Ford Motor Company [NYSE:F] uses are from NVIS, a leading supplier for professional virtual reality displays.

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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 NVIS 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 virtual reality headsets are, it seems Ford has found plenty of use for the technology.


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