Volkswagen AG is one of the first automakers to try ray tracing, a new software that claims to show the most realistic images of cars on computer screens.
Computer-animated representations of cars and their components are a matter of course in vehicle design.
But there has been a lack of images that seem nearly real, allowing a detailed play of light, shadows and reflections.
That gap is being filled with the so-called real-time ray tracing.
With this method it is possible to determine how the optics of body surfaces or components, such as radiator grilles or side windows, are modified by bright light and reflection.
VW invested 20 million euros, or $24 million at current exchange rates, to build two visualization centers where ray tracing and other computer animation is done.
"In the procedures up to now -- in their application in computer games, for example -- shadows are represented with tricks," said Philipp Slusallek, professor of computer graphics at Saarland University in Saarbruecken, Germany.
"With ray tracing, it is possible for the first time to present shadows and reflections in a physically correct way."
Three-dimensional models are being rendered realistically and can be moved and modified.
Until the early 1990s, the ray tracing procedure seemed too complex to be achievable in real time.
But in 1999 at Saarland University, Slusallek developed software capable of presenting objects as large as an airplane.
With new algorithms, the lighting of objects can be completely worked out in a physically accurate manner, many times per second.
According to the university, the speed of the system during the vehicle design phase will make possible a savings of as much as 30 percent. And planning errors and safety problems can be identified earlier.
InTrace, a spinoff firm founded by Slusallek, provided the software for the VW visualization centers.
Audi AG, BMW AG and DaimlerChrysler AG also use the software.
Among other uses, it is being deployed for headlight design.
"Design modifications can be examined immediately and interactively," Slusallek said. Models no longer need to be built to create a true representation.
After creating the software, the Saarland scientists developed a graphic chip to meet the demands of ray tracing. It can produce photorealistic, 3-D graphics.
The prototype already delivers a greater 3-D graphic output than a number of personal computers can create together.
With the new chip, the new technology is expected also to be ripe for the mass market.