Unity has long been in the frontline of companies leading the democratization of 3D assets and tools, including for XR applications. The automotive industry has been less involved in this charge. However, when Volvo wanted to make their 3D models and emulators more accessible, they reached out to Unity to help them do it.
ARPost talked with Unity Technologies Head of AR/VR Ad Innovation Tony Parisi, and Volvo Innovation Leader Leading Virtual Experiences Timmy Ghiurau about how this process took shape and what it means for XR developers.
What Comes in the Release
The first template, currently available, features a 3D model of a Volvo XC40 Recharge, as well as a digital environment. While users cannot edit the CAD model itself, they can use the template to explore Unity features related to lighting, color, and other visual manipulations.
“The initial release now is more focused on visualization and emulators,” Ghiurau told ARPost. Though, he suggested that more could be to come, saying, “Internally, we have a fully functional version but we are trying to release in succession with Unity.
The model and environment are currently available through Volvo’s new Innovation Portal and Unity’s Developer Hub. The innovation portal also included APIs for app developers and a LiDAR dataset from Luminar for those interested in working with autonomous vehicles.
“The Innovation lab releasing model data is incredibly cool,” said Parisi. “We believe that the world is a better place with more creators in it. That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning.”
Creating the Innovation Portal
The models and templates in the release took about six months to create, with the Innovation Portal about a year in the making. The idea came about over a number of years because of the need to share the same information with an ever-increasing number of partners and startups.
Volvo had already been aware of Unity who were, at the time, first expanding their reach beyond gaming applications.
“With Unity, it was interesting because we were telling them that we were thinking about opening up access to the 3D models and templates and they were smiling because they were looking at making an automotive template,” said Ghiurau.
Unity had already been established primarily as a game engine. However, users were already recognizing additional use cases and leaders within the company were interested in embracing them.
“Our point of view is that real-time 3D is powering, effectively, a revolution in this technology that people call spatial computing,” said Parisi. “There’s a shared vision that this is the future of computer-human interaction… we’re seeing that play out as companies approach us – companies like Volvo.”
Why Volvo? Why Unity?
But, why Volvo? It’s a fair question. And, Parisi is just as surprised as anyone.
“Generally, the automotive industry is incredibly careful with intellectual property rights for all the right reasons,” said Parisi. “I’m incredibly pleased that [Volvo] has gone in this direction.”
To be fair, Volvo has a surprisingly long history of promoting transparency. A Volvo engineer invented the now-standard three-point seatbelt in 1959 and the company decided to make the design freely available to other automakers.
There are a couple of caveats to the release. Ghiurau explained that another way that internal models differ from released models is that the datasets have been “cleaned up” for any proprietary information. Volvo has also asked that users not use the models directly for any commercial purposes. Unity is as happy to play with the models as any end-user.
“If you have an object with 3D physicality, it makes a lot more sense to interact with it like you would with a 3D object. It’s not just about poking the object and spinning it around and seeing what it’s made of… It’s about engaging with it,” said Parisi. “The wonderful thing about cars is there’s so much physicality… It’s a great showcase for what the technology can do.”
The Problem of 3D Models for XR
This release and the ongoing relationships between Volvo and Unity is also illustrative of a change in how interactive media and spatial computing make us think about 3D models.
According to Parisi, the models that product designers like Volvo use internally are incredibly large and complex. Think exploding a car to see the threads on the bolts holding it together. Now think on the other extreme to a car that you might see in an animated film or a video game – those models may well be less complex than those just released by Volvo.
“For XR, it’s a little different because you’re working with interactive environments,” said Parisi. “We’re now at a place where the industry is going to have to start meeting those needs.”
If Unity gave users access to the kind of models that Volvo uses for design, there’s not a consumer computer on the market that would be able to use them. However, XR artists and developers want models that are more than just digital diecasts. Projects like this are opening the door to available models that are both interactive and manageable.
Watch for What’s to Come
The 3D models released by Volvo and Unity are too recent and unique to definitely establish trends. We’d like to say that they mean that more automakers will release open source models and that models that are easy to both manage and manipulate will continue to find their way to users.
In the meantime, all that we can say with certainty is that this release is really cool and we can all look forward to more robust XR automotive experiences to come.