On a recent trip to Ford’s Virtual Reality Tour in Dearborn, Michigan, MotorSpaceNW was given access to areas within Ford’s headquarters kept more secret than the original Wonka factory, not to mention Ford’s historic test track where this guy got to race around like a crazy person in the new 2011 5.0 Mustang (412hp).
It all started at the historic Dearborn Inn, one of the endless historic places in Dearborn, a city that’s pretty much run by Ford. Fordneyland. After the mandatory schmoozing, cocktails and exchanging of business cards on the Inn’s patio during the first evening, I retreated to my room where I was ravaged by jet lag.
(Note to self: Order business cards)
The next morning we ate a pleasant breakfast of fruit and pastries and were divided into groups by color. My group was blue, but we quickly made peace with the Puerto Ricans. Shortly thereafter we were loaded onto shuttles. Team Blue made its first stop at Ford’s visualization lab, where we would soon come face to face with the mysterious “Powerwall”.
As our driver brought us into the parking lot, every stall was filled with a Ford. Mustang, Taurus, Focus, F-150, F-250, most were new or only several years old, but every so often there would be an old Taurus station wagon, Windstar van or something of the like.
I struggled to find an errant employee’s car that didn’t drive a blue oval, maybe even a Chevy, but could only manage to spot a three year-old Volvo, which still counts as a Ford. I asked one of the Ford marketing people if they’re required to drive the company brand.
“No,” she said, “but it’s strongly encouraged.”
Once inside the building we were greeted by a tour guide and instructed to follow her along a small lane painted in yellow on the floor that kept our left shoulder close to a wall. We arrived at a door and our group was divided again into sections of three. My section was guided into a dark room with high ceilings and a massive video screen.
A man greeted us and introduced two other men who were positioned behind a laptop docking station of sorts. We took a seat and were told this was not a room they wanted photographed. As the head guy began to speak the looming screen lit up in front of us. It was big enough to be a movie screen but had better definition than any high-def television I had ever seen.
At first I thought the initial vehicle we saw was a high-def PICTURE of a Lincoln crossover. Then the Ford guy on the controls began to rotate the view around the car. He zoomed out then slowly brought us all the way back up to the fender, close enough that we could see the flakes in the paint and the reflection the programmed light made off them.
The realism alone had my brains spilling out of my ears like pancake batter, but then we zoomed into the car, or rather through the fender. Ford guy did it slowly so as to provide a clear view as we passed by the interior engineering within the fender; through the wheel well, past the shock, front suspension, steering assembly, etc. before arriving in the cabin.
Once inside the view rotated with complete freedom of motion. We could the entire interior of the vehicle from any angle Ford guy pleased. To drive home the point, he zoomed in on the dashboard. It was like your face was being pressed up against it. You could see the tiny indentations that made up the texture of the leather wrap. It was like being on a weird amusement park ride Disneyland couldn’t afford. But this technology was of course a business tool. From the pamphlet:
“A design, whether it’s created in Europe, Asia Pacific or America, has to be researched around the world. Thanks to the Powerall, Ford doesn’t have to ship three-dimensional properties to every country where the vehicle may eventually be offered for sale, and market research can occur on multiple continents in a single day.”
Ford guy informed us that what were seeing was in fact the “small” version of the Powerwall; the full-size version was far larger and currently being used for a presentation. Back to the pamphlet:
“The Powerwall uses high-definition projection to enable review and refinement of full-scale computer-rendered vehicle designs prior to fabricating physical properties. …(It) features a 60-foot-wide wall that accommodates three 20-foot-wide projections simultaneously offering views of both the interior and exterior of vehicles.”
High-quality digital renderings replace physical models in the research phase, providing Ford more flexibility in research with less variability.”
For the big finale, Ford guy brought up a vehicle on the screen that I’m not supposed to talk about yet (It would be the first of several that day). The mystery vehicle began to drive around a fully rendered environment with realism that would make a PlayStation3 wet its pants.
Ford’s presentation team wrapped up the show and our tour guide reappeared to take us back to the shuttle. Little did I know I would soon be put into one of Ford’s virtual worlds. It’s an odd feeling to hold out your hand and see one that was created by a computer, especially when you reach the fingers out to grab an F-250’s dashboard and can actual feel the buttons, hold the steering wheel and look over your shoulder to check the blind spot for traffic.