From automotive engineering and styling to marketing and retail, Virtual Reality (VR) continues to surprise and delight. 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-launched car in any configuration using a VR headset. To learn more, we caught up with Joseph Artgole, associate marketing director, ZeroLight, a specialist in 3D visualisations.

We’ve heard about Virtual Reality for some time, its applications and product-market fit. While the potential is clear, the path to commercial reality hasn’t been that smooth. Has the VR industry come of age?

The automotive sector is no stranger to immersive experiences. In fact, it’s provided use cases throughout each stage of the marketing and sales journey. We’ve worked with multiple brands to create successful deployments that drive lead generation (Toyota), conversion (Audi, BMW) and brand affinity (Porsche). The key to its success is understanding how it adds value to the current retail experience and the type of customer you’re looking to engage. This will give a clear idea as to where to deploy the experience, and what content is required.

During the medium’s launch, content was limited to the capabilities of the display in the headset. Now the use case for immersive technologies is proven, we’re seeing investment drive better hardware to market. With features such as field of view, resolution and eye tracking all improving, better content will emerge and grow the marketplace. It’s well on its way.

Could you explain a little more about ZeroLight and how it all began?

ZeroLight is a sales and marketing platform for the automotive industry. We focus on building beautiful interactive experiences that connect brands with customers and help sell higher specification vehicles. Our software works seamlessly across all devices, ensuring a unified, consistent and high-quality customer experience in all situations.

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ZeroLight was initially an incubator within a video game company, translating experience and expertise to other industries. Established in 2014 after identifying the need for a more sophisticated virtual car showroom, the business has gone from strength to strength.

In what ways are you pushing back the technical boundaries of VR?

Virtual reality allows customers to digitally explore a vehicle on a 1:1 scale. It allows for both walking around and sitting inside the car whilst configuring. ZeroLight’s experiences are of an extremely high visual quality, so whilst in the digital world customers truly believe what they are seeing. This is important as experiences are being used to make purchase decisions, so need to show the product as accurately as possible. Because of the quality achieved, we have been able to work with up and coming products that will change the VR landscape. An example is our partnership with StarVR, who provide a headset capable of a 210-degree field of view and high-resolution panel. This means you can view the digital world with the same perspective as you would the real. For us, this means we can showcase our graphics at a higher resolution and create an even more compelling experience for customers.

We’re in a unique position having deployed VR experiences at every stage of the customer journey; pre, during and post-sale, whilst also carrying out product launches, brand experiences and concept car delivery. Brands are increasingly realising how the medium can add value to their sales process, incorporating it into a wider, connected retail ecosystem.

Who are your customers?

We have worked with BMW, Nissan, Porsche, VW, Audi, Pagani, Toyota and others. We recently partnered with Porsche for a concept that demo’s a new product, Spotlight. Spotlight uses cloud technology to enable dealerships to produce personalised content on demand for each customer. In June, we partnered with BMW to deliver a connected series of virtual experiences for the BMW M Drive Tour. As well as our work with Porsche and BMW, we have supplied virtual showrooms and VR experiences at scale across Audi’s dealer network. Additionally, we are Pagani’s Digital Retail partner and will further expand our public portfolio in the months to come.

What is your research telling you about the need for VR and AR retail experiences in the automotive industry?

Our research considers car owners and those who are looking to purchase a car within the five largest economies in Europe. It finds that over 82 per cent of respondents would like to configure their vehicle using immersive technologies, with over 88 per cent stating they would be likely to purchase after doing so. Almost 65 per cent stated the presence of a VR installation would prompt them to visit the dealership.

This reinforces the fact VR doesn’t just add value to customers, but acts as a point of differentiation for dealers to drive footfall. Audi has confirmed that in dealership setups where VR is an option it’s used in over 50 per cent of sales.

To what extent does your technology help the motorist engage with the car brand?

As part of the same survey, over 77 per cent of respondents say they would expect to feel a greater sense of connection with the brand than when using other mediums. This shows how effective immersive experiences can be at creating ‘brand fans.’ With the two most valued features of such an experience were interactivity (over 24 per cent) and visual quality (over 22 per cent), it shows that potential customers want to physically interact with their digital vehicle in a way only this medium can currently provide.

Turning to your base in the north east of England, how do you attract and keep such specialist talents?

The North East has a strong heritage in engineering and it shows in the talent it continues to produce. We continue to work with local universities and communities to foster talent, whether it’s demonstrating the possibilities of a career in tech through our open days for local schools, support of STEM events, internships for school leavers and graduate schemes for those finishing university. Identifying and nurturing skills is a big part of our efforts to educate young people around the possibilities available to them within the industry. Our award-winning offices also provide an extremely modern, sustainable environment for all staff, designed specifically around their needs. This includes a riverfront view of the Tyne and frequent socials to bring the teams together every month.

To what extent is Brexit hindering your recruitment?

We always look to attract the best talent, wherever it may be. There’s a possibility that those with unique skill sets may be put off by the transition, however, we are fortunate enough to be highly advanced in our sector and therefore still see and encourage applications from those who believe they have the skills and the passion to join us, wherever they are currently. This is crucial as a business, and we have programmes in place to help staff develop and grow into leadership roles.

What’s next for ZeroLight?

We’re always innovating with the latest hardware to build new retail concepts that excite car customers worldwide. On top of announcing new clients, 2019 will see us broaden our suite of AR solutions whilst championing new cloud-based products. At the very start of the year, we’ll be showcasing our use of machine learning to enhance the customer experience, taking us beyond visuals.

There are some who believe that 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.  What’s your vision for VR technology?

VR and AR will converge to provide true MR headsets, capable of either completely immersing the user or simply overlaying digital content onto a real scene. This will broaden the scope of immersive technologies by making them accessible to a wider market with the potential for new types of experiences.

Immersive and cloud technologies will also converge with the introduction of new wireless technologies. This will drastically reduce latency and make web-based MR experiences viable, meaning immersive experiences could not only move from the dealership to the home.