Our innovators are shaping the way we will live in the future. Here, we look at the way that holograms and mixed reality are being used to push the boundaries of what is possible.
In an unremarkable building that looks much like all the other buildings spread across Volvo’s Torslanda HQ in Gothenburg lies a remarkable office. Through a maze of corridors, and behind a door that looks like all the other doors, is a dark room with a huge screen on the wall, a long desk in the middle and a control booth in the corner. This is the home of the company’s virtual and augmented reality team. And it is where a team of fresh, young, innovative people are working with technology that is changing the car industry: holograms.
“Have you seen Star Wars?” asks Loris Cwyl, the team leader. “Do you remember when they get the message from the Rebel Alliance and the little hologram of Princess Leia is beamed out of R2-D2? That’s what we work with. 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 skiing 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 that 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. The holograms can be anything at all, from dragons to spaceships to engines.
And this is where it starts to become useful. “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. But because it’s virtual I can make it bigger. Or look inside the cylinders.”
“We want to cut the development time for new models from 48 to 32 months. Microsoft HoloLens will help us do that.”
Digital & Connectivity Consumer Services, Volvo Cars
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 in the near future, Microsoft is still refining the technology – and it’s the experiences of teams such as the one at Volvo that is shaping that refinement.
Holograms of engines 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 in 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.”
“HoloLens is just one example of the way that Volvo is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Right now, though, Loris and his team are concentrating on applications they can use immediately, focusing on cutting 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. Imagine you’re responsible for the seats in a new model and I’m from another department, and I want to run a cable down the side of a seat. In HoloLens you can do it, try it out and see if it’s possible. And you can do it together so you get instant agreement. One of the strongest features of HoloLens is its collaborative nature – lots of people can see the objects and interact with them.”
Where virtual reality immerses you in a completely virtual world, mixed reality is more flexible because it allows you to see and interact with a mix of real and virtual elements. “The potential of mixed and virtual reality is so big we needed to decide on one thing and pursue that. So we’ve decided on this because it’s something we can finish and put to good use. This tool is being used in production today.”
The potential of HoloLens to open up new creative opportunities for its users is also huge, but to make the most of it requires a culture that fosters innovation. Loris says Volvo’s structure, and the Swedish way of allowing people the freedom to take responsibility for their own actions, is a crucial part of achieving this. “My manager trusts me to do the right stuff and I have the responsibility to tell him if I think it’s getting out of control. And I pass this on to my team. We believe in our colleagues because they’re the ones who know how to do the job. We trust them.”
He likens this attitude to the way the gaming industry works. “It’s a rare thing – I’ve only seen this in gaming companies and it’s something we apply here, in my department. Without it we wouldn’t have as much creativity.”
That creativity is helping to shape the future, and HoloLens is just one example of the way that Volvo is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, for the benefit of its customers. From connected services to autonomous driving, it is a company at the forefront of innovation, always on the lookout for the next HoloLens and the next Loris.
So in the future, will we all be wearing headsets and existing in a hybrid world, halfway between the real and virtual world? “We won’t be wearing headsets,” says Loris. “It will be something like an implant into the optic nerve. You won’t even think about it. It sounds so futuristic but from a technical view point we’re not that far off.”