Three of the smartest people I've ever met just went from ecstatic genius-mode into sombre, contemplative silence. It's not because someone just dropped one of the most advanced motion-capture gadgets Ford has ever created, but because of a question I asked about the art on the wall. "Well, that's a special story," a boffin explains to me.
The room we're standing in is called the FIVE Lab. Not because there are four others around the world, but because it's called the Ford Immersive Vehicle Environment, hence FIVE.
The old Ford visualisation lab had existed for over a year now, but this is the first time that the US-parent has seen fit to throw money at it to make it a world-class facility. The only other motion-capture lab Ford has of this calibre in the world sits inside the super-secret advanced research facility at Dearborn in Michigan. That makes the Melbourne FIVE Lab kind of a big deal.
Previously, the Ford design lab had hacked together VR tech from different vendors to create a virtual space where designers could look at a car before it's even been modelled to refine it and identify problems they hadn't thought of yet. The new lab takes that concept and put it on steroids thanks to new tech wizardry.
The new goggles use head-mounted motion capture tracking technology to place the viewer in an immersive virtual environment unlike any other. 3D CAD data from Autodesk builds an amazing rendering of a Ford vehicle, while new algorithms for handling light come together to create the most realistic-looking car you've ever seen. The light and shadow calculations work to change reflections both inside and outside the vehicle in real-time. Forza 5 ain't got nothing on Ford's new lab.
All of it is being powered by two NVIDIA Quadro K6000 graphics cards inside the workstation rendering rig, which can build different pieces of a vehicle in stunning detail.
Ford techs might need to see how engine parts work in the new Mustang for example, so they get the bonnet section from the CAD model and throw it into the virtual space. From there, engineers and designers can walk around the engine bay, and stick their head right into it to see what's going on as it rides. Collaborative working means that teams around the world can see what the pilot sees, so that everyone can take advantage of this problem solving tool.
A few weeks ago, I'm told, a design team used the space to diagnose a problem with the bonnet line in the Ford Mustang that could only be seen when people of certain heights were sitting in it. Ford are able to move the car up and down in the virtual space to see what people of different heights see, and from there they were able to measure up a fix in the room before the car could go to final build, saving potentially millions of dollars down the line. That's the aim of the FIVE Lab.
The room itself is the epitome of clean design. The walls are a gunmetal grey; thin, black metal crossbeams dotted with motion capture cameras sit snugly in the corners and along the roof; a server rack quietly ticks away, connected to the massive fibre pipe Ford Australia built connecting the Design Centre to the company's supercomputer back in Dearborn, and an 84-inch 4K screen acts as a high-resolution window into the virtual space.
The only thing that sits on the floor is a generic car seat and steering wheel. We're told that it has been placed there for our benefit. Most of the time, Ford techs don't even use the dummy car seat. They've just placed it in here today so us VR plebs can make a connection between the real world and virtual space.
It's The Matrix for car design in here.
The walls are scantly covered, except for a thin logo and the big 4K screen. The only thing that catches your eye on the wall is a piece of art as big as the 4K panel that's covered in amazing science and technology references.
Among other things, it bears the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab logo, a photo of the Mars Spirit 2 Rover, a gorgeous-looking satellite and an amazing old Ford Mustang fastback. The top-left of the piece is emblazoned with the letters TB.
"What's with the cool artwork?" I ask the team leader of the FIVE Lab. That's when everyone sort of just went silent.
Whereas I thought the TB stood for something like Thunderbird — an old Ford model — and bore inspirational projects to keep the team motivated, the true meaning is actually much deeper.
The guy who helped design the FIVE Lab for Australia was a genius, I'm told. He helped design the hard drives that currently sit on NSA satellites orbiting the globe. He worked on NASA JPL's Spirit 2 Rover and put technology on Mars, and before he died in a car crash, he helped Ford build one of the most advanced visual design spaces in the world with the Australian FIVE Lab.
His name was Todd Beatty, and that's why the artwork bearing tributes to his genius carries the letters TB.
Todd never got to see the FIVE Lab finished, but when it was opened Ford brought his wife into the top-secret Design Centre to see Todd's last stroke of genius.
As I leave the room, slightly misty-eyed, I thank the team for showing me their work and telling me about Todd. On the door I spy a silver nameplate that doesn't match anything else in the Design Centre.
"Ford Immersive Vehicle Environment | Dedicated To Todd Beatty".
Ford's design legacy is now about more than cars. It's personal, and it's beautiful. Everyone that comes through this lab trying to make cars safer is working under the spiritual supervision of Todd and the FIVE team.
Luke Hopewell travelled to Melbourne for the day as a guest of Ford.