When she was a young girl, Elizabeth Baron loved electronic gizmos, photography and science. So it seems only natural she would follow her calling and choose an education and career in computer graphics. Today, she is running Ford’s Immersive Virtual Environment (iVE) lab, a state-of-the-art facility she helped create that uses sophisticated virtual reality technology to enable designers and engineers to fully experience a vehicle before it is ever built.
“The technology is really amazing,” said Baron, who is a technical specialist in Virtual Reality and Advanced Visualization at Ford. “It enables us to evaluate many vehicle exterior and interior alternatives in a virtual environment from any location – in the driver’s seat or hundreds of feet away from the vehicle – with animated characters and vehicles.”
In fact, Ford’s iVE lab uses the same high-tech computer graphics animation software utilized by the motion picture industry to create animated films, such as “Shrek” and the newly released “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”
Two of the specialized tools used in the iVE lab are the Cave Automated Virtual Environment (CAVE) and the Programmable Vehicle Model (PVM).
“The CAVE is a room where images are projected in stereo onto three walls and the ceiling to generate real-time, virtual vehicle interiors and exteriors at actual scale,” explained Baron. “When you look around, you can see virtually everything inside and outside of the vehicle.”
The PVM, an adjustable physical device that can be scaled to the actual dimensions of a car or truck, provides an even greater realistic experience by adding the element of touch.
“We set up key dimensions – steering wheel, gas, brake, center stack, etc. – and then we put the virtual world around that physical model,” said Baron. “Instead of being in a room, you’re actually sitting in a representation of the vehicle. You can touch and feel most everything, but what you’re looking at is digital.”
Both virtual design tools help Ford improve the design aesthetics, engineering and ergonomics of its cars and trucks. They also enable the company to bring products to market faster and more cost effectively.
Baron says one of the most interesting aspects of her job is figuring out how to make all of the technologies work together.
“Everything has to function as a system,” she said. “I enjoy figuring out all of those interdependencies and making it work.”
The work Baron does in Ford’s iVE lab is so advanced and well-renowned that she recently received a call from NASA’s visualization lab asking for a tour of Ford’s facility. “The chance to collaborate with them and share ideas was so exciting,” exclaimed Baron. After the visit to Ford’s iVE lab, Baron was invited to the Kennedy Space Center to see their virtual technology. “We found out what we shared in common and what we could learn from each other,” said Baron.
While Baron was at Cape Canaveral, she had an opportunity to see the space shuttle Discovery preparing for launch. “I even had a chance to take a peek inside the shuttle,” said Baron. “It was just phenomenal.”
Baron says people often ask her how she got such a cool job. Her response?
“I created it, and Ford supported me,” she said. “Virtual reality didn’t exist when I hired in at Ford more than 20 years ago. The virtual reality team kept pushing the envelope until we were able to figure it out.”
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About Ford Motor Company
Ford Motor Company, a global automotive industry leader based in Dearborn, Mich., manufactures or distributes automobiles across six continents. With about 201,000 employees and about 90 plants worldwide, the company’s automotive brands include Ford, Lincoln, Mercury and Volvo. The company provides financial services through Ford Motor Credit Company. For more information regarding Ford’s products, please visit www.ford.com.
Oct. 28, 2009