Virtual Reality is the biggest tech story this year, just like wearable gadgets were last year and 3D TV was the year before. And, of course, automakers are looking to use the technology in very interesting ways.
Virtual Reality is making its way to the dealership, the design studio, and even into your homes, as more and more automakers look to innovative technology to help sell, advertise and design their cars.
An Immersive Dealership Experience
One way VR can make the biggest splash is at the dealership. We all know that dealerships can be a den of spoiled dreams: You go in looking for a car to call your own and they try to upsell you on something that isn’t what you originally had in mind. From model to car color, to available option packages and extra cost add-ons, sometimes it can feel like a dealership is just trying to sell you what they have, instead of what you want.
But Audi is allowing you to pick and choose your dream car and see it with your own eyes before dropping the money down, thanks to new virtual reality technology. Imagine you get to see the car you want, right in front of you, where you can decide if that color combination of interior and exterior is right for you. If the car isn’t to your taste, you can change the colors on the fly or maybe pick new wheels. This allows for more detail and control than you could ever expect compared to the usual build-a-car section of an automaker’s website.
The exact process is this: prospective buyers will be able to walk into an Audi dealer, slip on an HTC Vive headset and walk into an empty 16.4 by 16.4 feet room where, thanks to virtual reality magic, they’ll see the car they’re hoping to buy in front of them. The car is shown in 1:1 scale, so it would be just like they’re standing in front of the real thing. The customer can then ask the sales representative questions about the car, and the representative can show them extra details of the car, right there in the virtual world. If the buyer isn’t satisfied with what they’re looking at, say, the car is too small for their needs, they can swap it out for another model and see how that one works. Customers can even adjust and customize the interior or exterior colors to ensure the car is up to their personal preference.
Furthermore, the headset features a serious Bang & Olufsen sound system that can accurately represent the car’s sound system and engine note, providing the car buyer with a fully immersive experience. Customers can walk around the car in the 16.4 by 16.4 feet room and even peek inside the car, open the trunk or check out the engine.
The system is meant to be the closest thing to seeing and experiencing a car before actually putting down the money for it. The VR cars are extremely well detailed, and the entire experience performs at a high frame rate that’s unexpected for such a high-resolution 3D demonstration.
Audi sees this technology hitting dealerships in two forms: a sitting demo where customers will put on a headset while seated in front of a sales representative, or the standing, free-movement version described above. The feature will roll out this year to select high-tech Audi dealerships.
Star in a Car Commercial
Other automakers are turning to VR technology, too. Volvo and Lexus are using the headsets to provide prospective customers with virtual test drives. Volvo even allows people to make their own headsets using some cardboard and their smartphone, so that they can experience the new XC90 while at home.
“We can deliver an experience that is so much richer than simple videos or pictures,” said Bodil Eriksson, from Volvo Cars product communications team in a statement when the feature was publicly revealed. “We can now transport people into a 360-degree world where they can explore and experience the next-generation luxury SUV.” The Volvo experience revolves around a weekend escape, and users are encouraged to immerse themselves in picturesque landscapes, along with the already impressive interior of the Volvo XC90.
Collaborating, Designing and Being Safe in Virtual Reality
Ford, on the other hand, uses the technology in-house, to help its designers test out its cars before they physically make anything. It helps streamline the process of building a car, as the company no longer has to build physical models or prototypes of vehicles, allowing them to approve or change important car designs earlier. The technology also allows Ford’s engineers from all over the world collaborate on a single car without having to travel.
Finally, one more customer-facing application is the way automakers are using virtual reality to demonstrate the importance of good driving habits and safety. At auto shows, Toyota encourages show-goers to sit in a car, and put a VR headset on. They start a driving simulator, but the system will throw many distractions at the pilot, as virtual passengers try to show the driver what’s going on their phones, or try to take selfies or point out other anomalies on the road. It’s a great way to show a driver how significant of an issue distracted driving is, all without putting anyone in serious harm.
It’ll take a bit more time before we can definitively say if the virtual reality trend is here to stay, but for now, automakers are jumping to the new technology and finding unique ways to use it and sell their cars.