German automaker Audi revealed the future of its showrooms at CES this week, using the HTC Vive virtual reality headset to showcase a high-end experience that will debut in Q2.
Customers will use iPads to select any make or model and then customize every element of the car from exterior paint to wheels to engine type to interior seats. Then they go to a 16-by-16-foot area and put on an HTC
Vive headset and Bang & Olufsen headphones, and their customized vehicle appears in virtual reality.
The customer can move around the exterior of the vehicle, open the trunk and doors, check out the headlights and tail lights, look underneath the hood, and even get inside the vehicle and sit in the driver’s seat, says Thomas Zuchtriegel, project manager with Audi Digital Retail Solutions.
“Virtual reality wasn’t convenient on a low-budget level to bring to customers until recently, it was always heavy and not scalable or portable,” Zuchtriegel says.
That all changed with the introduction of the Oculus Rift, which was the first headset the team at Audi used to develop this experience. Audi, a subsidiary of Volkswagen Group, debuted a sit-down Oculus Rift version of this experience, which doesn’t allow the user to walk around the vehicle, at the Detroit Auto Show last year. Three dealerships in Brazil have already tested the experience.
Zuchtriegel says Audi will use both versions of the experience beginning this year. The HTC Vive version will be used at flagship locations like the Audi City London store, while the Oculus Rift version will be implemented at other dealerships.
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“It’s all about using technology to empower the dealer and enhance the customer experience,” Zuchtriegel says.
The virtual reality system runs on a high-end graphics engine developed by ZeroLight and powered by high-end HP
PC workstations powered by two Nvidia graphics cards. Nvidia
was an early partner on this project.
The processing power of the system allows 3D models of the vehicles to appear in virtual reality at a rate of 90 frames per second with nearly zero latency, which means customers see exact replicas of what they’re buying.
“It has to be absolutely perfect to convince the customer that this car is there,” Zuchtriegel says.
In addition to offering every single make and model that Audi currently has, Zuchtriegel says the latest vehicle data configurations will be added as new models are introduced. The system connects directly to Audi’s IT network.
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“We are always interested in new technology,” Zuchtriegel says. “We were the first movers in virtual reality and we started development of the system way ahead of the competition.”
As for getting an actual virtual reality test drive, “that’s a very interesting topic,” says Zuchtriegel. An active driving experience would require a lot of additional technology, including a working steering wheel and pedals. That type of simulation experience is likely much farther down the line, whereas a passive prerecorded driving experience is something that could be possible in the not-so-distant future.