VR + Designing the Future of Mobility

"I could immediately see VR becoming an essential new design tool for helping designers to effectively communicate a bold new urban mobility future."

Last month I was excited to use virtual reality (VR) to experience new proposed mobility modes, new street designs and our urban mobility future. VR is poised to become an important new design tool as we reinvent mobility in a profound manner. It will become an important way for designers to sell their new designs to management and key stakeholders in this increasingly autonomous, and bold new future.

Last month I reviewed a student’s new narrow-format autonomous shuttle concept using VR at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I sat in a seating buck of the shuttle and strapped on the VR headset. In addition to experiencing sitting in the shuttle next to other passengers (digital mannequins), through VR I was also able to watch the shuttle approach me, then take a short trip in the vehicle, surrounded by conventional looking buildings on a familiar street environment. It was an effective way to understand and appreciate the new vehicle concept. 

While the student’s VR experience was low-budget, and somewhat crude, I was hooked. I could immediately see VR becoming an essential new design tool for helping designers to effectively communicate a bold new urban mobility future.

After removing my VR goggles, the student informed me I could check-out VW and Ford’s VR mobility experiences at the LA Auto Show. It was interesting to see Volkswagen and Ford take two very different approaches to using VR to present the future of mobility. VW used the technology to present a new car concept, while Ford created what felt like a fun VR-based “amusement park ride” to communicate a future city with its coming new mobility offerings.

At VW, I put on the VR goggles and stood next to their I.D. Crozz electric and self-driving car concept. The car looked great in VR and I could see how the seating layouts could be modified, and make the car transparent to see the EV driveline and battery location. It was like the ultimate “brochure”.

Then I sat in an “abstract” seat form, and a virtual woman salesperson sat next to me. She looked like a video-based hologram from a Star Wars movie—which felt strange. Soon after I started to “drive” the new VW car, the steering wheel retracted into the dash and I began to experience the self-driving mode. This was interesting, but as a designer, I began
to think about how I would redesign the vehicle’s interior, as the car’s inside felt somewhat unfinished for riding in autonomous mode.

Ford’s Greenfield Labs created a very different VR experience that had four riders sitting together on a very fun fast-tilting simulator, all wearing VR headsets. We were all riding a flying drone, which was traveling with a few other drones in the VR app, making us look like a small pack of Apache helicopters flying up and down in a breathtaking manner through a city. It was a bit like riding a mechanical bull with VR goggles on. It was really fun! (Note: Let’s not forget in the coming driverless future, millions of us love riding on roller coasters, which are automated vehicles that we don’t drive. Perhaps this future isn’t as awful as former GM vice chairman Bob Lutz expects it will be.)

Unfortunately for Ford, however, I felt this fun aerial mobility ride experience completely over-shadowed the new on-the-ground mobility solutions the company was presenting to us. 

Our flying would stop a few times on this five minute VR ride to see new ways for Ford cars to park in a garage, or how a customer might share a car with another. I felt like I was looking back several decades to the old ways of getting around after flying around this future city. I kept wanting to hear an announcement that Ford and Boeing were to become partners and would allow me to fly about my future city in this wonderful manner. 

Regardless of these early VR new mobility experiences, we are only now beginning to leverage VR technology to help us visualize upcoming new mobility systems and improved city designs. In the next 5-10 years, I expect VR technology to significantly improve and play a vital role in our efforts to design an amazing future.