German car maker Audi was quick to see the potential of VR and has been experimenting since the early days of VR’s resurgence to see how the tech could be used to enhance the car buying experience. Having introduced VR showrooms into dealerships as early as 2016, the company now has some 1,000 VR deployments in dealerships across the globe.

Speaking on stage last week at VRX 2018 in San Francisco, Audi’s Lorenz Schweiger, who looks after VR strategy at the company’s Business Innovation group, explored Audi’s ongoing work in bringing real-time VR visualizations into dealerships.

As Schweiger explained, the company has built a VR offering which acts as a virtual car configurator. Users strap on a headset and can view detailed car models at life size, with the ability to look at specific colors and configurations on the fly.

Audi has maintained a high bar for the VR visuals that is shows to customers, and that’s meant using the master vehicle models—developed throughout the car’s engineering and construction processes—as the basis for the visualization. As those models contain every single panel, screw, fastener, and fuse in the vehicle (and those for various configurations) they are far too complex to be rendered in a real-time VR visualization, Schweiger explained.

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And so the company had developed a process of reducing the complexity of the models by hand to the point at which they could be rendered in real-time against the 90 FPS demands of modern VR headsets—a process which took one to two weeks for a single vehicle.

But that bottleneck—of converting each year’s new lineup of vehicles—was a pain point for making the company’s VR deployments effective. Schweiger and his team sought a means of automating the process of optimizing the models until they could be rendered in real-time.

Image courtesy Lorenz Schweiger, photo by Road to VR

Some solutions which focused on automatically reducing the model’s geometric complexity resulted in an unacceptable sacrifice of the model’s visual quality. Wanting to keep visual quality high, Audi worked with a company called 4D Pipeline to develop a solution which would greatly reduce the complexity of the models by combining the many individual pieces into larger pieces, there by drastically reducing GPU draw calls while keeping geometric detail in tact.

And the results are very impressive indeed. Schweiger showed a handful of screenshots and flyby videos of the optimized models—which are ready to be rendered in VR at 90 FPS—revealing a very crisp look with realistic lighting, reflections, and interactions (like opening & closing doors and turning on & off headlights), both inside and outside of the vehicles.

The 4D Pipeline solution reduced the previous manual optimization process from one to two weeks per vehicle down to just 20 minutes, said Schweiger. The process also works directly from Audi’s master vehicle files, which means that if anything in those models were to change in the 11th hour, the process could quickly be re-run without ruining any additional work that had gone into the optimized models after the fact.

What’s more, the process also works with vehicles from Audi’s parent company, Volkswagen, because between the two companies the master vehicle files are based on the same structure, he said.

As the company continues to harness VR to create a more engaging sales experience, Audi has now deployed VR showrooms to some 1,000 dealerships, said Schweiger. The company has also previously said that it employs VR technology internally from sales & training to technical development & automotive production.

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  • Graham J ⭐️

    All that effort on the models and they display it with a low res Rift?

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    • Fluke

      That image at the top of the article is a year old at the very least, so they might have upgraded to something else by now.

    • Andrew Jakobs

      They already have problems showing these models at the resolution of the Rift with the hardware at the dealership (not really sure ofcourse what kind of hardware that is, but I doubt it’s a simpel 1060 specced GPU). So upping the resolution also means needing a much better GPU. And as Fluke mentioned, these photo’s are year old at least, so maybe they are using better hardware now (ofcourse I wouldn’t be suprised if they’re using a Samsung odyssee(+) now, as they don’t need any real controller support).

    • Laurence Nairne

      The point of the article is the platform, not the hardware. When a real improvement in graphical rendering becomes available (and it’ll have to be substantial for a manufacturer to replace 1000 retailers worth of kit) they will upgrade and the effort on the platform to maintain the fidelity will come to fruition. Build for tomorrow, not today.

  • FireAndTheVoid

    Audi should make this a downloadable app for those of us with VR setups at home. I hope this tech is applied across the consumer industry. I would really like to see Amazon create a VR store and furniture retailers create AR apps where I can place their furniture in my home.

    • Andrew Jakobs

      Ikea has something like that..

    • Laurence Nairne

      It might be in their plans, but supporting multiple hardware setups (both HMD and PC build configurations) isn’t trivial work. Add to this that automotive is already struggling to get foot traffic into their retailers and you might see a reason not to chuck it out into the wild just yet.

      That being said, I agree with you that it would be nice to have this available in home – especially as the current trend is that fewer and fewer people feel it’s necessary to see a car in person before making a transaction. In fact my company just recently launched an online portal for buying a luxury brand of cars in the Emirates to capitalise on this very trend.

  • Tom Szaw

    They should use Samsung Odyssey Plus with SDE and not old crap named Oculus. It kills the experience with screen-door and low resolution.

  • It’s fun that Audi is getting those headsets, but the company doing the work for them could have been just about anyone in the know. They’re just optimizing the existing models. 3D Studio has a one button that can do that for you. The Unreal 4 Engine can do this in real-time, dropping as much as it needs to keep a smooth framerate. You get even better real-time optimization by sectioning a model, especially one wrapped around you that you can’t see most of in any particular view.

  • Gary

    Pretty surprised Sony isn’t more focused on enterprise VR, seeing how big they are in the film and video industry equipments.

  • Ninjai71

    I know this experience from good known racing sims like GT Sport, Project Cars 2 and Assetto Corsa 1 all in VR Mode. It’s a great possibility to sit in such a realistically simulated car and be able to look around the interior of a brand new car model, all in real size and life like impression. :D

  • Patrick McKee

    Good for Audi, I bet they got a big ass discount on crappy Rifts. When you are sitting in a virtual car you don’t need the greatest tracking…lol