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Out-of-this-world auto design at 2012 Auto Show

The 2012 Chicago Auto Show opens to the public Feb. 10 and continues through Feb. 19 at McCormick Place. To find out more about the show, go to todrive.com/autoshow

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Updated: March 5, 2012 8:02AM



Visitors to the Chicago Auto Show will see the results of car designs that start with engineers using the same motion-capture and three-dimensional (3-D) technologies as Hollywood filmmakers use to create dramatic scenes like one in which apes attack motorists on the Golden Gate Bridge in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

The cars that have resulted from the Star Trek-holodeck-like experience are the 2013 Ford Fusion and the 2013 Explorer, the latter being made at the Ford Motor Co. assembly plant on Chicago’s South Side. The 2012 Chicago Auto Show opens to the public Feb. 10-19 at the McCormick Place Convention Center. Go to todrive.com/autoshow for details.

Ford uses what it calls an immersive environment lab, where engineers, designers and researchers put on 3-D headsets and special gloves to “virtually” drive a car mockup, push dashboard buttons, discern blind spots, evaluate visibility from different angles and otherwise come up with the perfect driving experience — as far in advance as three years before the car is built. The goal is to design cars, trucks and SUVs that are safe, efficient and fun to ride in.

“The immersive lab experience is much like a 3-D movie,” said Allison Stephens, a technical specialist in assembly ergonomics for Ford Motor Co.

The motion-capture technology also involves marking a digital human model at strategic spots so the model’s movements can be tracked by special cameras and used to create realistic animation.

Line workers at the South Side plant are making the 2013 Taurus, Explorer and Lincoln MKS at 700 workstations designed with help from “Jack” and “Jill” avatars.

Examples include a so-called “happy seat” workstation that lets a worker glide up to a car and attach electrical components, rather than crawling into the vehicle, and a satellite radio antenna that workers pop onto the back of the car’s roof rather than reaching to manually place it in the center. The technology also enables features such as the MKS sedan’s ability to “sense” when a driver appears tired and sound an alert.

“We planned how all of the work stations would be set up based on the motion-capture technologies,” Stephens said.

Judy Ma, a Principal User Experience/Industrial Designer for Motorola Mobility’s Advanced Concept Team, foresees 3-D evolving so that people can operate in a hologram-like plane.

The University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) newest invention, “Cyber-Commons 3-D,” represents a way to easily view 2-D and 3-D information at high resolution, on the same screen, at the same time.

The Cyber-Commons 3-D display wall is 20 feet long by 5 feet high, and consists of 18 3-D flat panels with ultra-thin-borders. The LCD flat-screen displays form a cinematic classroom blackboard that enables anyone with a laptop or tablet device to wirelessly grab a space on the blackboard wall.

Users of Cyber-Commons 3-D must use special glasses, but since the display screens use “passive” stereo, they require glasses that cost less than $1 each. Today’s “active” stereo glasses, used with home 3-D TV sets, cost about $100 each. Maxine Brown, associate director of the UIC Electronic Visualization Laboratory, said the cheaper glasses make the technology accessible to schools, museums, businesses and medical centers. Researchers can link with others throughout the world in real time in the Cyber-Commons 3-D environment.

“The key to the future is to allow immersive experiences,” said Ma, a native of Seoul, Korea, who has worked for 15 years at Libertyville-based Motorola Mobility, the smartphone and TV set-top box spinoff of the former Motorola Inc., that is being acquired by Google.

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