Honda Expands Its Virtual Development

Virtual reality was a critical tool in the 2024 Prologue EV’s data-led design process. SAE Media put on the headset for a view through the design team’s eyes.

Honda Prologue interior project lead Lisa Lee in the VR headset shares her insights with VR Design Studio leader Mathieu Geslin at Honda’s L.A. design center. (Honda)

Honda’s 2024 Prologue is the automaker’s first battery-electric SUV and its first vehicle of any kind designed primarily through virtual reality (VR). Honda has been building its VR resources steadily since 2017, according to Los Angeles-based Mathieu Geslin, VR Design Studio Leader.

Honda designers relied heavily on VR tools during development of the 2024 Prologue, shown here in a virtual representation. (Honda)

“Our initial thinking was that VR would enable us to accelerate the design process and rely less on physical assets that are slower and more costly to update as you evolve a design,” Geslin told SAE Media during a recent visit to Honda’s 2,500-sq.ft. facility loaded with dedicated computer-based modeling and visualization capabilities. “VR, he said, “has grown into a critical tool for collaboration, enabling instant feedback between Honda design studios in L.A. and Japan and our development team in Ohio.”

With three key associates — Marco Tan (senior CG and VR lead), Lisa Lee (Prologue interior project lead) and Jiro Ikeda (Prologue exterior design leader) — Geslin explained how far VR at Honda has progressed in a short few years. “The all-new 2023 Honda Pilot developed by our engineers in Ohio was actually the first production model where we used VR, primarily as an evaluation tool. Despite COVID travel restrictions, we were able to have high quality collaboration. The distance didn’t matter.

“For instance, using VR in conjunction with a physical seating mock-up created by our engineers in Ohio, our teams were able to evaluate interior features and future customer experiences in a variety of scenarios,” he noted. For the 2024 Prologue, VR became the critical tool in a data-led design process.” While in the past, designers would sculpt the model in clay and then it would be recreated as a digital model, for the Prologue VR was used was used to create a digital design; clay became the verification tool.

It also enabled Geslin’s team to “greatly compress the schedule unlike anything we’ve ever done before,” he said. The CAD model enabled Honda’s global design teams to receive immediate feedback and apply refinements to the clay modeling, color, material and finishes related to the EV model. Enthused Jiro Ikeda, “The Prologue is a vehicle with emotion and human elements which should excite our customers and signal a true Honda EV.”

Impressive and realistic

It was time for a personal demonstration. I recalled my first exposure to VR in the 1980s at Jaguar. The technology was then in its infancy. Geslin led me to a grey circular area of the studio where Marco Tan explained what I was about to experience in VR and assisted with the headset and hand tool.

Tan described the technique for moving around the car: Push down with your thumb on the center of the hand control. Then think about the movement you make when bowling or using an underhand cast to flip a topwater bass lure into your favorite weed patch. The longer you hold your thumb down, the greater the distance between you and the car.

At the end of your “line” is a circle with an arrow. The circle represents your distance from the car and the point of the arrow is your line of sight to the car. For example, in the accompanying photo in which I am kneeling down, I am VR-ing at the left rear tire as if I am checking the tire pressure. It’s impressive and realistic. And there’s a real temptation to physically move. Resist that temptation. Once outside the magic circle, all bets and VR are off!

The VR environment allows a designer to realistically vary the lighting on the car, the angle of that lighting and the type of lighting: sun, fluorescent, cloudy, sunset, you name it. That’s difficult or impossible to achieve using a conventional outdoor or indoor viewing area.

Tan added, “Using VR enabled us to collaborate virtually with our design and development teams in the U.S. and Japan, even during the challenges of COVID. We could see Prologue in digital environments that truly resembled the real world.”

Haptics are next

Next we moved to the seating buck, which is an exact fiberglass replica of the driver seating area in the Prologue. Lisa Lee explained, “Virtual reality is also transforming the interior design process and, for Prologue, it provided visualization of unlimited color and materials applications, improved collaboration, and much quicker feedback.” She said VR prototyping “removed limitations to the interior design and allowed us to find issues more quickly, and then collaborate more cohesively to address them with the HMI and CMF [color, material and finish] design teams.”

Author John Dinkel gets a virtual look at a Honda interior buck. (Honda)

The buck is equipped with a Prologue driver’s seat and steering wheel and brake and “throttle” pedals. All surfaces are a shade of dull grey, as the photos show, but that all changes once you put the headset on. Then you are looking at a VR dash and instrument panel and a full interior, including rear seats and sunroof.

You can reach out and “touch” the controls, but haptics is not yet part of the VR package so there is no feedback to the driver. It will be in the future, Geslin said. For instance, I was able to reach over to the glovebox to determine if it was within reach. And I could look around and get a sense of the materials and textures used inside the car. Initially, my line of sight out the windshield was too high. To which Geslin suggested, “Just reach down to the controls and lower the seat. It’s powered.”

Honda sees CMF offering many design applications for VR and MR [Mixed Reality] in future developments. With the Prologue program, the CG environments served many purposes, such as evaluating exterior colors in different lighting, or collaborating with interior design and HMI to evaluate interior lighting.

Geslin explained that as Honda moves to a full data driven process, “the unsung heroes are our data guys. And as our design team created the Prologue, the dedication of the data team enabled the rapid prototyping and rapid evaluation. Their challenging spirit really shortened the loop of innovation to enable us to develop the vehicle faster.”

Even as development transitions to a fully data driven process, clay modeling will remain important and will be carried forward as the verification tool in the development of other Honda products. “In this way, we will continue to infuse emotion and the human element into Honda design,” Geslin asserted.

“It’s an ongoing effort to further explore the technical capabilities of VR and AR in our development centers globally. And we’re really excited about what this will mean for the Honda products of the future.”