Image courtesy of VI-grade / Righthook

Autonomous vehicle development and training meets user experience at VI-grade

Sébastien Lozé
The world of automotive simulation has been embracing real-time technology for some time now, using Unreal Engine to run autonomous vehicle tests for millions of miles as well as test the appeal of new vehicle designs to customers. But while all these solutions have moved automotive technology forward, most are software-based and require a separate interface to talk to hardware.

International company VI-grade aims to take innovation a step further and merge the worlds of hardware and software under one common engine. With Unreal Engine at the core of their products, VI-grade created VI-WorldSim, combining cutting-edge driving simulators and rich visual and audio environments along with sophisticated data-gathering from both machines and people.

VI-grade was founded in 2005 with a focus on simulation software, developing solutions to help engineers build virtual models of cars and analyze their behavior. The company also provided software solutions for motorcycles, railway, and aircraft.

In 2009, VI-grade broadened its focus to building driving simulators for the automotive market. "We were lucky because, at the same time, driving simulators became more and more popular," says Guido Bairati, Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing at VI-grade. "Automotive companies are under pressure to decrease the time to market and the number of physical prototypes, and save money while developing a new car. The answer was using driving simulators."
Image courtesy of VI-grade / Righthook
VI-grade started producing both small static simulators and large dynamic simulators. "We became market leaders in midsized driving simulators," says Bairati, "and we started to have customers in many different segments, from race teams like Audi Sport and Porsche Motorsport to sports car manufacturers like Ferrari, Mercedes-AMG, and Maserati, and even passenger-car companies like Volvo and Fiat."

VI-grade's customers started asking them for more and more sophisticated and realistic software to improve the driving experience. It was then that they started developing VI-WorldSim, a fully integrated graphic environment that drives their simulators with Unreal Engine.

Building a complete end-to end-simulation solution

While Unreal Engine provides great visuals for automotive testing, VI-grade elected to take things a step further. The company's goal is to mimic, with a driving simulator, the entire driving experience when a person is in an autonomous vehicle, or in a vehicle with ADAS assistance for lane-keeping, cruise control, emergency braking, and other features offered by modern vehicles. To this end, VI-grade incorporates movement, vibrations, and sound in their simulations, bringing a fully immersive experience.
"We're interested in developing tools to study how the driver reacts to such systems," says Bairati. "It's one thing to have a car that keeps a lane on the highway, but another to develop a lane-keeping system with results that are comfortable for the driver." He goes on to recount a very common experience with modern cars, where drivers turn off the lane-keeping feature because its operation is unnerving to them. Bairati wants drivers of the future to have the opposite experience.

For autonomous vehicles, VI-grade can also test passengers’ comfort level in a variety of configurations. "We work very closely with our customers to capture inspiring future use cases that often involve custom hardware and software solutions.” says Warren Ahner, CEO at RightHook, Inc. (now part of VI-grade). “Our customers are not just worried about how the car will feel at the limits, but also how enjoyable of an experience it will be to ride inside of this vehicle as a passenger or as a robo-taxi customer. These studies require a 360° immersive experience combined with next-generation conceptual HMI, via augmented reality."

To test such reactions, VI-grade has built in-depth HMI testing environments that monitor driver and passenger heart rate, skin response, and other biosignals, all of which contribute to insights on an individual's experience while using a car's features. "We don't just ask, 'Does the person feel comfortable using this system?'" says Ahner. "We also throw scenarios at them and ask, 'How quickly can they recover?'"
Image courtesy of VI-grade / Righthook
Bairati concurs. "It’s very important to not just make sure that the car does what it was built for," he says, "but also that acceptance by the driver and passenger is as high as possible."

Graphics are key

To truly test such reactions, the system has to produce realistic graphics. "It's the first thing that the driver sees and perceives, so it is extremely important that the graphic environment is as realistic as we can make it," says Bairati. "That was the reason we developed VI-WorldSim based on Unreal Engine."
VI-WorldSim integrates all the components VI-grade has developed—simulators, graphics, sound, physics-based motion, and HMI feedback—to provide a full solution to developers of autonomous and manned vehicles.
Image courtesy of VI-grade / Righthook
The realistic graphics can even help marketing teams assess a new vehicle’s curb appeal. “They bring in the model of the next-year version of the car, and they bring in our sound simulation,” says Ahner. “They have the car drive by a café, and they make a video simulating what this new version of the car is going to look like. Then they use what they’ve learned to help build their marketing story.”

On the technical end, the team at VI-grade cites several Unreal Engine features as reasons to use it for an integrated simulation solution—batch processing tools, insights on content size, the Unreal Motion Graphics UI Designer (UMG) visual UI authoring tool, easy code-monitoring, and the ability to create automated tests with ease.

Integrators like VI-grade are leveraging all aspects of Unreal Engine and to create applicative layers, simplifying the work of their end users so they can concentrate on their own missions rather than on the technology behind the solution.

The sum of the parts is, as Ahner says, a unique value proposition for VI-grade's customers. "We built all of it in Unreal Engine,”  he says. “We built the configuration, the user interface for designing your scenarios, the ability to interact with the road model, all in Unreal Engine. Unreal truly is the core user touchpoint for the platform."

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