SUBARU harnesses the power of VR for user research

Bringing game dev skills to automotive

Kotaro Uki is one of a new generation of workers who bring a background in game development to new industries. Before joining SUBARU, he spent about a decade working on console games as a CG movie and effects designer on franchises like Time Crisis.

As game engine technology transforms traditional workflows in everything from AEC to film and TV, game development skills are increasingly in demand. That means career trajectories like Uki’s are becoming increasingly common.

Now, Uki puts the skills and experience he gained in the games industry to use on research and development at the Japanese car giant, using Unreal Engine to push automobile design forward.

Uki explains that the car design development process at SUBARU can be roughly divided into five stages: research, sketchwork, modeling, evaluation / visualization, and design review. “Though it is well-known that digital technologies are used for modeling and visualization, SUBARU also actively uses these technologies for a user research process called ‘the clinic’ in which we use the design under development to investigate how the target user feels and what design options they prefer,” he says.

Previously, SUBARU produced full-scale clay models for the clinic. Because those models had to be transported to a secure location, the design development process effectively had to pause until the model reached its destination.

“Also, we had to accept compromises,” says Uki. “For example, we sometimes produce expensive additional prototypes to make the headlamps and wheels look as much like the product as possible.”

In situations where there was not enough time or budget to use the first choice of materials, those elements of the vehicle would have to be substituted for ones made of paper and film.

In a bid to overcome these challenges, SUBARU developed an application that can reproduce all the processes of the clinic using VR. The technology was developed in cooperation with historia, one of the leading Unreal Engine content developers in Japan.

In the VR process, a user wears a head-mounted display and answers questions in front of a digital prototype model. The team developed their own interfaces that enable the user to complete the questionnaires in a comfortable way—even in VR.

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