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Forget glossy brochures and the pantomime of buying a new car. Game software and wearable technology is changing the way we shop. Consumers in shopping centres or sitting at home can now visualise their next yet-to-be-launched car in any configuration using a Virtual Reality (VR) headset.  Continuing just-auto/QUBE's series of research snapshots, this one takes a look at how, from engineering and styling to marketing and retail, VR continues to surprise and delight.

Virtual Reality is the name of the game

Behind every compelling video game is a software engine on which images are created in real-time and stored for later use. One of the frontrunners in developing VR platforms for gaming, and now for automotive applications, is Unreal Engine Enterprise (a division of Epic Games).

"Applications range from experiential sales and marketing applications aimed at the consumer, to tools with accelerate design and engineering processes that address a broad range of issues."

"Virtual Reality defines a system that allows a user to feel and operate in a digital world, as they might in the real world," Simon Jones, director of Unreal Engine Enterprise, told just-auto. "Done well, VR is immersive, putting the viewer directly into a scene. At its heart is a real-time 'engine' that allows developers to create virtual worlds, with users immersed in these worlds using a headset that tracks their movement in real and digital space and ensures the experience is as real as possible. Applications range from experiential sales and marketing applications aimed at the consumer, to tools with accelerate design and engineering processes that address a broad range of issues such as model proliferation, integration of radical new technologies and the challenges presented by global markets."

New generation of car configurators

Using VR headsets, car designers are also able to show top management completed prototype vehicles and interiors. BMW recently revealed how VR is being used in the design process. Jones sees this as one of the major application areas, adding that the automaker's system is built using the Unreal Engine technology platform. A number of others are taking a similar course. Jones added: "BMW can simulate drives through a city while testing the all-round view of the surroundings or whether a display is poorly legible or awkward to reach depending on the viewing angle or seat position. They have acknowledged that this technology 'makes it possible to save a great deal of time and effort, especially during the early stages of development.'"

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The physical and virtual are indeed coming together, says BMW's Peter Schwarzenbauer, member of the board of management of BMW AG Mini, Rolls-Royce, BMW Motorrad, customer engagement and digital business innovation, BMW group. BMW is "merging quite a bit," he told just-auto to the point many customers can configure a car online and show up at the dealership, a salesman can call up the configuration, the customer does not "have to explain it all again".

A game changer for Audi

"There are lots of benefits for the car manufacturer and customer, but fundamentally it means a richer, more interactive and engaging experience."

Last year, Audi was the first automaker to introduce a VR system into the car showroom, supported by its visualisation partner, ZeroLight. "We've brought a new way to think about car configurators and customer experiences with virtual cars," marketing director, Jason Collins, told just-auto. "That fundamental difference is that ZeroLight is a software-led solution rather than an asset-led solution.  Whereas last-generation car configurators used a large quantity of individual pictures of cars composited together with rudimentary software, ZeroLight uses very advanced software and few individual assets.  Fundamentally it's the difference between looking at photos and you holding the camera. There are lots of benefits to this for the car manufacturer and the customer, but fundamentally it means a richer, more interactive and more engaging experience."

Try before you buy, offers Ford

Ford foresees that we could one day try any car, anywhere, and for as long as we want, thanks to VR. The carmaker says it is integrating VR into the way it designs its vehicles. Ford is exploring how the technology could change the retail experience. "It really is a blank canvas. It is easy to imagine that someone who wants to buy an SUV could experience taking that car for a test drive over desert dunes without leaving the comfort of their home," said Jeffrey Nowak, global digital experience chief, Ford Motor Company. "Likewise, if you're in the market for a city car you could be at home, relaxing in your PJs and fit in trying out the peak-time school run after you've put the kids to bed." Quite.

VR is the Next Big Thing

Jaguar Land Rover is also using virtual reality in its dealerships. Retailers are able to connect customers to a virtual tour where they can see and interact with a life-size model through a VR headset. Using the latest digital technology, the headset will use animations to illustrate the technical details.

Other luxury automakers are on the case, using VR in different ways. Lexus has developed a Lexus RC F virtual reality driving experience allowing users to feel the thrill of a high-speed race track in Marbella, southern Spain. The result is as close as you can get to experience the speed handling and sound of a 475hp RC F without actually sitting in the cockpit.

As a novel variation on a theme, VW's SEAT brand recently conducted a 'virtual handover' of over 100 new Leons to a large corporate customer. The carmaker said the operation gives a strong indication of how technology could be used to enhance the delivery experience of cars to the next generation of connected drivers. SEAT also noted the innovation substantially reduced vehicle delivery time.

Visitors to Hyundai's stand at the Seoul motor show last March were treated to a driverless journey via immersive VR simulators. A virtual trip in an autonomous Ioniq aimed to demonstrate the advanced piloting capabilities of the carmaker's latest technology, enabling the car to navigate without driver input. Meanwhile, Kia's showcase included a VR theatre demonstrating its so-called Drive Wise driver assistance systems. Drive Wise embodies Kia's philosophy to realise intelligently safe vehicles and improve safety for all road users.

While VR has obvious benefits for dealerships, it is also used further upstream. Volkswagen is using VR technologies to provide assembly training for employees. Initially, workers can practise an assembly sequence in the virtual world with tutorials and videos on a smartphone, giving them the optimum preparation for practical assembly work.

Although VR brings a number of opportunities, do the applications need costly hardware to run? "That's another area where the technology is advancing quickly," said Jones. "A year ago the answer would have been yes, but now you can run a professional VR application on a powerful laptop computer. Unreal Engine is designed to be extremely efficient, which means it reduces the demands on hardware. The high-end graphics cards needed are still relatively expensive in desktop terms, so being able to use one, rather than two or three, also makes a huge difference."

VR is not a gimmick but set to play a key role in the automotive industry.

Visualising our next car through a sci-fi headset is not a gimmick but looks set to play a significant role in automotive retail. Last week, we learned from market psychologists, Concept M, how they too are exploring the use of VR in automotive research settings. We also recently learned that more disruption to the online car retail sector could be on the horizon with the arrival to the market of online retailer Amazon. Serving the used car market, Vroom is an online direct car retailer. The start-up is reported to be planning to open VR showrooms at its offices and pop-up shopping centre stores in Texas, US.

Virtual autonomous driving is already possible using VR, complete with a realistic crash if you get it wrong. Going a step further, meet Synthia. It may look like just another computer game but is designed to teach autonomous cars to be better drivers.

Is this the future?

There are some who believe that the advent of VR technology will fundamentally change the way we live over the coming decades. Cinemas will immerse audiences in VR movies, patients will undergo VR treatment and customers will enter the world of the products or services they are interested in, enabling a whole new dimension to the idea of sampling, or trying out new things. Cars are no different.  

See also 2017 Automotive Megatrends and Markets Report