Virtual Reality and collaboration

Benefits of VR vs Clay Modeling in the Automotive Industry

When I give my talks on Virtual Reality (VR) and when I meet new clients, I get a lot of the same questions and concerns. I wanted to talk about some of those here to help people fully understand what is the current place of this technology and how it can greatly benefit any studio. As the technology progresses it will take on a bigger role, but this is where it can help today.

What VR Is

The biggest cost saving benefit in VR is between the computer aided design (CAD) stage and the clay mill. One of the biggest costs in an automotive design studio is milling out CAD data to full scale. Not only in the cost of the actual material and machine time but, more importantly, while the design is frozen awaiting the model to arrive.

VR model in Raymundo Burgueno custom environment

VR gives us the ability to see our designs in 3D and make changes before any mill hits the clay. Even though the model isn’t a photorealistic simulation, we can analyze the form and shape of the car. Walking around the car gives a great sense of scale. Custom shaders can help analyze the curves and volumes of a car.

VR is a great tool for interior design reviews. Connecting with the control helps us reach and really feel the interior space, giving us full immersion into the design. This is especially useful where a difference of a few millimeters can make a component look elegant or fragile; it gives us a better idea of how the driver and passengers will experience the design.

Audi R8 VR interior

VR is great for investor and shareholder presentations. People outside of the car industry find it hard to figure out what a rendering will look like in person. VR helps people experience the vision before investing millions or even billions of dollars into the venture.

Will VR Replace Clay Modeling?

This is quite the debate between CAD modelers and clay sculptors, and it is something I almost always get asked. My answer is that depends on your design process and on your budget.

I always consider my job as a way to help the design process, not replace it. I have really good friends who are extremely talented clay sculptors. They have helped me tremendously in my education on 3D forms. As a CAD modeler, I never saw them as anything but my partners in the design process. I think it is a very beautiful career and I’ve seen first hand its benefit in the design process.

Clay modeling the Bentley Bentayga

VR helps get the model to a much better place before it hits the mill. This way, once it get’s handed off to the clay modelers they aren’t making huge volume changes, just refining the surfaces. You aren’t wasting their valuable time on changes that would have been noticed and corrected in CAD.

That being said, I have worked on projects that went directly from CAD to VR to design release. There were some foam mock-ups but clay never touched the design process and the resulting designs were very beautiful. There are car companies that have eliminated the clay process altogether. Many satellite studios don’t have the space or resources for anything but CAD.

Clay model of the C7 Corvette

I truly believe that clay modeling will always have a place in car design. It is a vital part of many studios and I have always enjoyed watching clay sculptors and learning from them. It’s not going away anytime soon.

What VR Isn’t

VR isn’t a photorealistic simulation. The technology is not there yet and the cost of trying to get 60fps with actual raytracing is too high for the end result. What many people don’t realize is that even if it was photorealistic at 90fps, it still won’t feel real because the screen technology is not there. I see a lot of digital studio managers spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on render farms. The costs are too high and the technology hasn’t matured for this stage.

Audi VR customer experience

I have personally experienced photo-real environments in VR. When you see them on a 4K screen it’s hard to tell if it’s a real life photo or a simulation, but the second you put on the headset, it’s a very different experience. The fidelity is not there to convince our brain we are looking at something real.

There will be a day in the not-so-distant future when you put on a wireless headset and what you see will be indistinguishable from reality. We are not there yet. Don’t expect this technology to get you there.


This is a video showcasing what I believe will be an integral part of every car design studio in the future. The video was captured on my own personal workstation, which was built using two Nvidia 1080 video cards sli’d together.



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