We went hands-on with Audi’s new room-scale VR showroom experience that the company is hoping will add new dimensions to the car buying experience whilst also introducing entirely new demographics to VR.
Audi are serious about VR it turns out, very serious. In fact, they’ve been serious about it for some time, surprising as that may seem.
At CES I met with Marcus Kühne, Project Lead on Audi VR and Immersive technologies. A VR fan, he was one of the original Oculus Rift DK1 Kickstarter backers, and had even spent time with the infamous duct-tape Rift prototype units.
From there, Audi’s relationship with Oculus grew close and they’ve had access to a lot of the prototype hardware over the years. Kühne describes a “lucky punch” in finding Oculus’ CEO Brendan Iribe was in fact an Audi fan (Iribe drives an R8), and invited him to Audi’s HQ in Ingolstadt, Germany where the pilot project for the Audi VR Experience was born. The initial seated experience put the user inside their choice of Audi, and despite visual limitations (they used an early 1080p Rift HD Prototype), it was clear the potential was there, says Kühne.
Today, at CES 2016, they were showing off the culmination of the internal project team’s efforts; a new experience that harnesses the free roaming immersion of the HTC Vive. The latest version of theire experience is using the new Vive Pre, the second Vive development kit.
The Audi VR Experience is designed to give potential customers an idea for the look and feel of their potential new purchase, when the exact model—with various customizations in features and colors—is unavailable. This meant that visual fidelity, in particular the car models, had to look as realistic and detailed as possible. To this end, Audi found a technology partner in Zero Light, a company specialising in high quality, high poly rendering solutions.
Plugging that into the Unity engine, the team found the fidelity they were looking for and after a 6 month development cycle, which included mapping the car’s geometry, the new Audi VR Experience was ready for show.
The experience has basically two modes, one: a seated experience where you can sit in your car of choice and inspect the trim, and second: a free roaming, standing experience where you can walk around the car.
Upon observing users experiencing clipping issues when their virtual view broke beyond the polygonal boundaries of the model, Audi was surprised to see that, instead of users recoiling, they’d lean in further to see the insides of the rendering. Audi took this observation and implemented a very clever cut-out form of clipping avoidance; instead of fading to black or some other workaround, when you put your head through the virtual model, the the car appears cut away, revealing the workings within.
It’s an incredibly cool effect and one that allows the user to get a real feel for the inner workings of the car. It may sound like a minor feature, but I found it endlessly fascinating (as you’ll hopefully see from the embedded video capture of my time in the demo above). Although the models are not fully complete, dipping your face into the V10 engine of an R8 might just turn any car-phobe into a raving petrol head given half the chance.
Throughout the demo, the configuration of the car can be altered using a connected tablet running an application which allows car models, and aspects like trim and colour, to be changed on the fly. This means that any user engaged in the experience need only shout out their requirements and it can instantly become a virtual reality. Beats punching through a dull touchscreen configurator any day.
Towards the end of the demo, the environment was switched from a model of Paris to something altogether more unusual, in this case the surface of the moon, complete with american flag and lunar lander for scenery. It’s just an example of the endless possibilities of VR can be used to spice up the traditional car shopping experience.
Kühne told me that the plans were to use two tiers of VR showrooms in outlets throughout the world. The smaller scale, seated version, running on an Oculus Rift CV1 (comprising special Audi VR kit including high-end B&O headphones), will be used in the majority of selected showrooms. The Vive-powered roaming experience will find its way to flagship outlets, found in capital cities across the globe.
One aspect of this initiative that I hadn’t considered until Kühne pointed it out to me, was that this will mean a demographic unlikely to have come into contact with VR will get to try a best in class experience for the first time. For VR as a technology, the fact that you need to try it before you understand its power, is one that needs to be tackled if VR is to reach orbit this time around. So it’s encouraging to see such a well respected brand pushing forward into the unknown in this way.
The VR experiences will be rolling out over the coming months to stores over the world, so the next time you’re in the market for a new car, stop by the Audi showroom and you may well get yourself bonus trip to the moon for your efforts.