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Virtual reality is offering designers new ways to see the world—and design for it, too

December 14, 2021, 6:16 PM UTC

Mike Aldred is the principal engineer in robotics at Dyson’s UK headquarters. When he joined the company 23 years ago as a software engineer, he and others on his team were tasked with the job of building a robotic vacuum. His group promised to deliver that robot—in what seemed at the time—a long three-year window. “Seventeen years later, we delivered it,” says Aldred.

With his focus entirely on strategy and technology, Aldred has no line reports and relies heavily on simulation in product innovation and testing to do his job. The first robotic vacuum Aldred helped build did a wonderful job of cleaning his own home in Mansbury. Unfortunately, though, that was the only home in which it seemed to work well. “We spent several million pounds making a robot for my house,” he recalls. “We did it in someone else’s house and it didn’t work. We tried it abroad and it was different there, too. We came to realize the importance of home trialing; even in one home across one year, whether there’s wellie boots lying around, or sun hats. At Dyson, we’re keen on making products right. Not just right in Mike’s house in Mansbury.”

What that process to land on “right” looks like, though, has begun to change quite rapidly in the last handful of years, as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies have entered design and engineering practices worldwide. Instead of physically taking the robot to test in various locations, settings and environments, with time-consuming adjustments to the product along the way, Dyson engineers can virtually simulate myriad environments in less time, wasting fewer resources. The ability to create environments or circumstances, test or experience a prototype, and collaborate virtually across teams has allowed Dyson and other companies across industries to innovate more efficiently and effectively than ever.

In fact, a 2020 report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers shows by 2030 nearly 23.5 million organizations and businesses will be leveraging AR and VR for training, meetings, and to improve their ability to meet customer needs. Companies like Snap, Microsoft, Webex, Apple, Google and more have all begun to drop new technology to help further that end, while schools such as Savannah College of Art and Design and MIT have embraced emerging tech in their curriculum to push the boundaries of what it means to build, create and innovate. “Our students have created cutting edge AR/VR solutions for leading organizations such as Deloitte, 3M, Delta Airlines, Disney, Google, Gulfstream, JCB, Microsoft, Oculus, Unity, Valve Corporation, and more,” says Max Almy, Dean of SCAD School of Digital Media. “The benefits of working with AR/VR/XR in design are great. Designers can work spatially in fully immersive 360 space, teams can work in shared virtual spaces and interact with each other live, training and communication can be expanded to long distance and remote work worldwide. Immersive prototypes are highly effective ways to present concepts to clients and all types of immersive concepts are engaging consumers as exciting marketing experiences. At SCAD, we see the potential for AR/VR in many of our programs from animation to Industrial design.”

For Aldred’s part, augmented and virtual reality are about “making the invisible, visible,” allowing for more precise decision making, easily bridging the gaps between code, product, and design. “Let’s say we need the robot to clean closer to the edge of the room,” says Aldred. “That means I’m going to write code that will receive information, make a decision and receive some action. The robot sensors will receive information like distance to the wall, but I don’t know exactly what the robot is reading. The simulator can show me all of the information being used by the robot. It gives the engineer everything they need to understand what’s on the screen in front of them, breaking down barriers between mechanical, electrical and software.” The end result is hopefully a robotic vacuum that resonates with a person living in a Tokyo apartment as much as in a Malibu beach house, says Aldred. And while the design process of ideation, testing, and retesting hasn’t changed, the time and resources invested in the process have. Things move faster in development, all the while allowing various teams from engineering to design to marketing to experience a given product in an entirely new, more visceral way.

Zak Brown, CEO at McLaren Racing, recently announced a partnership to leverage Webex Hologram. The racing arm of McLaren is hoping the immersive 3D holograms will help their design and technical teams work faster, smarter and create less waste. “The pace at which we develop our race cars, 80 percent changes over the course of the year,” says Brown, who will introduce the Hologram to his company at the end of December. “We have a new part every 15 minutes, 365 days of the year. We are never sitting still. This will become very much a part of our design team year-round. I’m super excited.” Brown estimates that several hundred people at McLaren will be using the headsets to meet, design, collaborate, build, work trackside, and even allow the racing team’s fan base to interact with drivers. He expects designers to work faster, share ideas and prototypes more seamlessly and across great distances, keeping the company on the leading edge of race car technology for the foreseeable future: “I can see this becoming a main element of how we design our race cars moving forward.”

Of course, for companies like Dyson and McLaren, AR and VR do offer tremendous competitive advantage in the design process. For others, the technology can also be used to create greater accessibility and equity across products and experiences. Holger Kuehnle is the executive creative director at Artefact, a Seattle-based design consultancy, and spends a fair amount of his time thinking about how to use technology to solve human problems. He says VR and AR are increasingly interesting and attractive ways to compress aspects of scale and time to learn more about a given problem and create more equitable outcomes for everyone. “It helps us see the world through the eyes of others,” says Kuehnle. “We are all biased in our perspectives and the experiences we have in our lifetime. We can find common ground by entering a world that isn’t our own.”

For example, he says, when thinking about using a screen and accessibility, it’s interesting to consider things we can’t see, but instead hear. “When we talk about inclusive design, we all have temporary abilities and disabilities. When we are driving, technically we can’t use our eyes to look at our phones. In that way we’re blind to the phone and we need to think about our interactions in an abstract way.” That’s why entering a virtual world to experience prototypes, even rough ones (think cardboard cutouts), can help inform the design process in an immediate and dramatic way. “If we get tools into the hands of designers there is a certain type of democratization by just saying let’s look at what this might look like? Can we call get into that world and see what it might look like, even if it’s a prototype?”

At the root of AR and VR, says Aldred, is an effort to find new ways to solve problems and make people’s lives easier. And while the catalyst for its growing presence on design teams, he says, has been lessons and tech borrowed from both “the magic and physics” of the gaming industry, where the technology’s influence is headed, is still wide open to possibility. “We are pushing boundaries to get the simulators to do what we need them to do,” says Aldred. “We used to be using tech and say this is great. Now, we are saying we need your tech to help us do this. Products are going to be pushing the boundaries of what the tech offers.”

P.S. Business by Design will be taking a break for the holidays, but will return in January. Have a wonderful and safe holiday!

Nicole Gull McElroy


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