Women in Engineering: Starting up Ford with VR
Tanya Weaver posted on June 07, 2019 |
Elizabeth Baron and her groundbreaking role with virtual reality at Ford Motor Company.

During her 30-year career at Ford Motor Company, which began in 1988 and concluded at the end of 2018, Elizabeth Baron pioneered the use of virtual reality (VR) technology at the company. She was the principle inventor of the Ford immersive Vehicle Environment (FiVE), a highly realistic environment that allows designers and engineers to fully experience the interior and exterior of a virtual vehicle during the product development process.

However, amazingly for most of her career developing this technology, she couldn’t actually see it. Born with a condition known as stereo blindness, Baron could not see in 3D. This meant that unlike the majority of us who have stereoscopic vision, she could not judge distance and depth by combining and comparing images from both her eyes.

“I had mono vision basically,” she said. “I could see with my left eye or my right eye but never together as they couldn’t both converge on a point. This meant that I saw the world as though it was a screen in front of a moving window in front of me.” she explained.

Baron with second-generation VR technology. (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Baron.)
Baron with second-generation VR technology. (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Baron.)

This was her reality. She recalls a specific incident from her teenage years in which she realized her view of the world was blatantly different to most other people. She was on a date watching the Independence Day fireworks on the Detroit riverfront and commented to her date that she felt sorry for the people on the other side of the river who were seeing the back of the fireworks. “When I saw his face, it was a mixture of surprise and maybe a little pity,” she laughs.

This planted a seed. She became fascinated in how the physical world is represented through the interplay of physics and light. Along with a natural interest in engineering, this led her to study computer graphics at Eastern Michigan University with a major in CAD programming. “CAD was actually a pretty natural thing for me to do — taking a 3D concept and putting it on a flat plane is kind of how my mind saw the world,” reveals Baron.

Coming from a long line of Ford employees, upon graduation she thought she’d have to break with tradition as she couldn’t see herself getting a job at the company writing code.

“I come from a Ford family with my dad, uncle, brother and cousins all working there. But I honestly never thought that I’d end up at Ford since I didn’t major in engineering,” she said. “However, at the time, Ford was developing its own CAD tool, and I was a CAD programmer. So, I did end up there after all.”

Ford’s first-generation VR system from 2000. (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Baron.)
Ford’s first-generation VR system from 2000. (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Baron.)

Starting in 1988, for her first few years, Baron worked on developing Ford’s custom-built CAD system but became increasingly interested in real-time simulation and the potential of VR in helping designers and engineers carry out product evaluations and assessments. While studying VR at the university, she drew inspiration from Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist dubbed the “father of computer graphics.” In 1968 while an associate professor of electrical engineering at Harvard University, he created the first head-mounted display. “The work that he did was groundbreaking, and I always took a lot of inspiration from his work,” says Baron.

Sutherland wrote a paper in 1963 called “The Ultimate Display” that laid the groundwork for VR and extended reality in general. The standout quote within this paper that particularly inspired Baron was: “The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked.”

By January 2003, Baron had moved on from her CAD role to focus fully on developing immersive reality systems.

“Once I understood the value immersive technology could provide, I conducted myself as if I was a start-up company inside of a multi-national,” she said. “Just like many start-ups, my lab was in a space similar to a garage. There was no heating or air conditioning, and the bathroom had a space heater overhead so that the pipes wouldn’t freeze.”

While she wasn’t given budget initially, she did appreciate the level of technical freedom afforded to her. Although, she admits that at times it was difficult because most people did not believe in what she was doing.

“For years I would work to develop the tech, and there was a substantial contingent of people at Ford who didn’t believe in the value of immersive reviews,” she said. “They thought it was experimental at best or a waste of resources at worst, and that what I was doing wasn’t adding any value.”

But she believed in what she was toiling away at and thought that once it was realized, it would add value. So, she laid low and worked it out. She also had a specific mindset for how this immersive environment would be achieved, and it wasn’t cave-based.

“The approach I was advocating for was headset based, which at the time was a really different paradigm for immersion than what everyone else in the industry was doing,” she said.

3rd generation VR system at Ford. (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Baron.)
3rd generation VR system at Ford. (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Baron.)

This was, of course, before Oculus Rift and HTC VIVE, so she was using military grade headsets and making her own VR-like immersive capabilities from pre-vis software.

“I was creating stereo rigs, constraining them to work with mocap and figuring out view frustums and all of that myself because there really wasn’t the application that would work for what I was trying to do,” she said.

It was one thing working away in a “garage” on technology that roused suspicion anyway. To be pioneering something so against the norm certainly raised more than a few eyebrows. She remained relentless and uncompromising in her vision. She attributed that tenacity to the reason why the FiVE technology became such a success. 

Fourth generation VR at Ford, with life-like visual rendering from ray tracing technology. (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Baron.)
Fourth generation VR at Ford, with life-like visual rendering from ray tracing technology. (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Baron.)

As Baron was evolving the technology and had a vision of what she wanted, she was not able to physically see it herself. However, this changed in 2011 and 2012 when she underwent several eye surgeries to correct her stereo blindness.

“In my 40s I finally achieved stereoscopic vision,” she said. “Not having it for most of my life and then getting it, the world was new and better and nauseating. It was like a rollercoaster ride I couldn’t get off. Once I was over the nausea, it taught me a lot about the importance of stereoscopy together with high-visual quality to provide a rich and important experience. Then I worked hard at achieving photorealism in the immersive environment. Lights and shadows, which are so key for understanding our world, were represented along with stereoscopy in real time. All of the things are a part of perception, and I knew that would be a key differentiator of our technology.”

First, second and fourth generation VR image quality side by side. (Images courtesy of Elizabeth Baron.)
First, second and fourth generation VR image quality side by side. (Images courtesy of Elizabeth Baron.)

Another key differentiator of her immersive technology is the collaboration aspect in that it provides an immersive space where a range of people can come together to interact with the virtual vehicle. Early in 2012, Baron set up this global, collaborative review capability and built a lab in Ford’s Australian office. By mid-2012, an opportunity arose for her to showcase this environment to her colleagues.

“I had heard about the need for a review of the U.S. version of Ford Ranger, which was developed and sold in Australia at the time. I sent a note to one of the executives stating teams from the U.S. and Australia could be immersed in the same environment while they review the vehicle together,” she said.

Although it was just seven years ago, by VR standards, this was back in the day. Baron now laughs at what equipment she gave them to work with.

“In the virtual world, you hold a flashlight that shines a virtual beam of light on whatever you are looking at,” she said. “In the physical world, that was essentially a dollar store flashlight that we used as a prop and a wood dowel rod that had Velcro taped to it, but it worked out really well and proved the value of the technology to these executives.”

Baron receives the Dr. Haren Gandhi Research and Innovation Award. (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Baron.)
Baron receives the Dr. Haren Gandhi Research and Innovation Award. (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Baron.)

Things then really started to change for Baron. She was finally getting recognition for what she had been working on all those years. In 2014, she was awarded the highest individual technical award in Ford Motor Company, the Dr. Haren Gandhi Research and Innovation Award, honoring her career in immersive visualization and technical leadership.

“At that time, the award had only been received by a handful of people. I was the first woman to receive it, and the first person outside of the research community,” she said. “I would say that this is my greatest achievement because it is tied up with overcoming the biggest obstacle of my career —working for so many years to get leadership to believe in the value of immersive realities as a cross-functional communication paradigm.”

No longer having to lay low, she was eventually given a budget. In January 2015, she became Ford’s immersive realities technical specialist, a position she held until she left the company in December 2018. As the global lead for immersive realities, she and her team developed multiple immersive realities using AR/VR/MR.

During her career at Ford, Baron also had four children. With a busy work life, she and her husband made the decision that he’d be a stay-at-home dad while their children grew up.

“There was an assumption that I was part of a dual income household. My belief is that there is a bias that a woman’s income is often the spare income,” she said. “I don’t think that there was necessarily equity for me especially in terms of pay and promotion compared to a man doing the same job. I also do believe that is part of what women do—we keep our heads down and do a good job. So, I don’t think I was always a good advocate for myself when it came right down to it.”

She hopes this may soon change. Even during the time she was at Ford, more women were being employed in technical and engineering roles, as well as leadership roles.

“In my last five years at Ford, I even worked for a woman and for over a decade employed women on my team, so that is progress,” she said.

In her own way, Baron has tried to recruit more women into engineering and get them interested in immersive technologies by volunteering for science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) projects with students, as well as seeking out opportunities at universities. In particular, she mentors for University of Michigan’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Program.

At the end of 2018, she decided to leave Ford to set up her own company, Immersionary Enterprises, in Saline, Mich.

“The goal with my business is to bring immersive reality solutions for cross-functional communication as enterprises work through their product development and manufacturing processes,” she said. “It sounds like a lot, but it’s basically taking all of the information a company has about a product and seeing it holistically through the immersive environment.

“For instance, in automotive design it would be taking things like the ergonomics, the user experience, the analytics, the manufacturing process and the design and melding it together and then experiencing it all in context,” she explains.

Having spent her career immersed in immersive reality, she believes that there are very exciting developments on the horizon, especially in terms of the increased integration between the extended realities of AR/VR/MR and artificial intelligence (AI).

For all the insight that technology can give us, Baron strongly feels that we should take time to appreciate the world around us. Having literally not felt a part of the world for most of her life—with stereo blindness making her feel as though she was watching the world go by her rather than feeling a part of it—she says that we should once in a while take the opportunity to look in wonder as we immerse ourselves in the beauty of our own current reality.

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