Volvo dodging digital moose while driving in VR headsets

Car manufacturer has invested in Finnish mixed reality headset maker Varjo to rapidly trial new vehicle features

Volvo engineers have been driving vehicles on real roads while wearing virtual reality headsets, dodging digital moose that run out in front of them.

The Varjo XR-1 headsets are made by Finnish firm Varjo. The user sees a ‘photorealistic’ high definition, low-latency feed of their surroundings, which Volvo overlaid with virtual animals and pedestrians, as well as warning systems and prototype dashboard features.

Those external virtual elements “seem real to both the driver and the car’s sensors” Volvo said.

The approach is different to augmented reality devices like Magic Leap One and HoloLens 2 with which users see the real world directly through a transparent screen, on top of which digital elements are added.

The XR-1 headset, which launched yesterday, also features eye-tracking technology allowing Volvo to assess how drivers use new features in the car, and how distracted they are by them.

“With this mixed reality approach, we can start evaluating designs and technologies while they are literally still on the drawing board,” said Henrik Green, chief technology officer at Volvo Cars.

“Instead of the usual static way of evaluating new products and ideas, we can test concepts on the road immediately. This approach offers considerable potential cost savings by identifying priorities and clearing bottlenecks much earlier in the design and development process,” he said.

Volvo warned that driving while wearing a headset with no direct view of the road should not ‘tried at home’. “Do not attempt” the company noted on a demonstration video, explaining that testing was done on blocked roads without any through traffic, with security staff at road blocks.

Varjo has an ambition to “create mixed reality where you cannot tell apart anymore what is real and what is virtual,” said Varjo founder and chief product officer Urho Konttori.

“You have a mixed reality where it starts to be possible to have things where you doubt yourself, is that real, is it mixed reality, is it virtual, what is it?” Konttori said.

The company, which has received financial backing from Volvo’s innovation fund, plans to make the headset available in the second half of this year.

“From the very beginning, our vision has been to create a product that can seamlessly merge the real and the virtual together,” said Niko Eiden, founder and CEO of Varjo.

“The incredibly advanced ways in which Volvo Cars uses the XR-1 show that Varjo’s technology enables things that have been previously impossible. Together with Volvo we have started a new era in professional mixed reality."

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Tags augmented realityVolvovirtual realityrealityVRHoloLensARMagic Leapmixed realityXRVarjo

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