In an unremarkable building at Torslanda, Volvo’s HQ in Gothenburg, Sweden, lies a remarkable office. Through a maze of corridors, and behind a door that looks like any other, is a dark room with a huge screen on the wall, long desk in the middle, and a control booth in the corner.
This is the home of Volvo’s virtual and augmented reality team – full of fresh, young, innovative people working with technology that is changing the automotive industry: holograms.
“Have you seen Star Wars?” asks Loris Cwyl, the team leader. “Do you remember when the little hologram of Princess Leia is beamed out of R2-D2? That’s Microsoft HoloLens. You’re in a real environment where you see a hologram that’s a fixed object. We are using this technology right now.”
HoloLens is, in fact, a mixed-reality headset. It looks like a cross between a pair of wraparound sunglasses and ski goggles. Unlike virtual reality – which replaces your environment with a virtual one – the HoloLens user sees the world around them as it really is.
The key differences are the presence of holograms, which are projected onto your surroundings, and the fact that if there are several people in the same room (or even on the other side of the world) using HoloLens, they can all see the same holograms.
“We can be sitting around a table discussing, say, an engine, and I’ll put the engine hologram on the table in front of you,” says Loris. “It will act as a real object and we can walk around it, look at it from different angles. And because it’s virtual I can make it bigger. Or look inside the cylinders.”
Microsoft chose Volvo Cars as its automotive partner for HoloLens development, and Loris and his team have been working with the technology since 2015. They’re at the forefront of development and their work is directly influencing the next generation of HoloLens.
Although HoloLens headsets will be commercially available eventually, Microsoft is still refining the technology – and it’s the experiences of teams such as the one at Volvo that are shaping that refinement.
Engine holograms are just the start. Imagine walking into a Volvo dealership and being able to see a full-size hologram of the car you want to buy, with the wheels you want, in the colour you want. You could walk around it, change the colour or the wheels or add a styling kit. You could look inside and change the upholstery. And Volvo plans to make this vision a reality in its showrooms of the future.
Or – and this is somewhat further off – altered reality could become an in-car entertainment system.
“When we have autonomous cars on the streets, what are you going to do in your car? With virtual and mixed reality, you will expand the dimensions of the car. You’ll be able to go elsewhere. You can watch a film or visit your mother in her living room. And because it’s a real 3D experience, it’s incredibly immersive and you feel that you’re a part of the environment, where the virtual and physical blend.”
Right now, though, Loris and his team are concentrating on applications they can use immediately, focusing on reducing development times for new models.
“We want to cut it from 48 to 32 months, and this technology makes the process more efficient for our engineers. One of the strongest features of HoloLens is its collaborative nature – lots of people can see the objects and interact with them, and it’s possible to get instant agreement.”
That creativity is helping to shape the future, and HoloLens is just one example of the way Volvo is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, for the benefit of its customers.