When Glenn Harrington donned a motion capture suit complete with more than 40 reflective spheres he wasn't being turned into the latest video game character, but helping to design car manufacturing jobs that are less physically stressful on workers.
At the Ford Motor Company Assembly Ergonomics Lab, the company uses technology typically found in the gaming industry to reduce on-the-job and repetitive stress injuries on its assembly lines.
"The cameras pick up the markers [on the suit] and create an avatar," said Harrington, a technical specialist in the Ford Assembly Ergonomics Lab. "What we're ultimately trying to do is confirm the assembly feasibility of the vehicle."
During a demonstration Harrington stood in the middle of a room with more than a dozen cameras pointed toward him, shining a dull red light. The light reflected off the markers, which were positioned all over his body, got captured by the cameras and then were processed by computer software that created an avatar called Jack or Jill. The company can scale the avatars from a short female to a very tall male to make sure that all of the jobs on the assembly line can be done by people of varying statures.
Harrington then walked toward what looked like a basic skeleton of an automobile. Projected on the wall behind it was the CAD data of the recently debuted Ford Fiesta. The CAD data represented the virtual vehicle, while the metal skeleton gave something for the users to interact with in the physical world. Once Harrington got close, the on-screen avatar looked like he was working on the car.
Going one step further, users could wear a 3D virtual reality headset that immersed them in the scene and allowed them to view the car as if they were actually there. The cameras and software tracked the users' hands and showed them on screen, otherwise the users wouldn't know what they were touching.
The motion capture technology wasn't without its problems though. During most of the presentation the left arm of Harrington's avatar was stuck in a single position. When users wore the virtual reality headset, it appeared that the system wasn't calibrated correctly because where the users were reaching in the physical world did not correspond to where their hands appeared in the virtual one.
Aside from the problems during the demonstration, Harrington said that the lab helps Ford save time and money and reduce job-related injuries.
"In the absence of this technology, years ago we would stand in our pilot plant with physical parts and then we'd identify a problem in production," Harrington said. "Now we're identifying inadequacies to the build of the vehicle two to three years before the vehicle ever launches."