Insights EDU

Leveraging XR in the Automotive Retail Industry

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Richard Armstrong | Enterprise Architect & XR Strategist | Cassini Limited

10 Sep 2021 | 9 min read

Choosing the right new car is always a difficult process. When you have eventually decided on the manufacturer, you then need to think about the model – and then, the most complex step of all, you need to select from the overwhelming choice of vehicle options, and combinations that are available.

The experience can be overwhelming, to say the least!

The “configuration process” is also confusing, if you choose one option, you can’t have another – and then you have to think about what the option will look like on the vehicle? Usually, you are presented with a single 2D photograph in a brochure or on a website from a fixed angle – and you are supposed to imagine what it actually looks like. Then, you may select an option you think you want, you wait the 6 weeks for delivery of your customised vehicle and realise you didn’t want it or it wasn’t what you envisioned. Something that cannot be easily changed later!

Wouldn’t it be great if you could see and experience your chosen model and vehicle in 3D, better still, in the comfort of your own home? Using AR this way is a possibility today for most people with a smartphone or tablet/iPad.

Configuring vehicles in real-time is now possible through both AR and VR technology. Leading manufacturers such as BMW, Audi, VW and Porsche have developed AR apps and high fidelity VR platforms to allow their customers and their sales personnel to fully experience the configured vehicle, inside and out, in high fidelity 3D, and in 1:1 scale. One of the unique, key aspects of a Virtual Reality experience is that when the user moves closer to a particular object on the vehicle, the image quality increases and greater detail is revealed (this is quite the opposite to a 2D photo were moving closer to or zooming in pixelates the image and it becomes blurry – quite the opposite is true in VR). As an example, if you look closely at the leather seats of a vehicle, you can see the stitching clearly as you move closer. If you look closely at metallic paintwork, you can see the flecks of metal in the paint.

 

BMW – EVE VR

Virtual Reality in the Automotive Retail Sector

When provided access to VR experiences, customers can take the guesswork out of choosing vehicle options and selecting the right model. While a customer is immersed within a VR experience and sat virtually within a given vehicle, the customer can click a button on their controller and instantly alter the options of the car – from the exterior colour to the wheels or the dash colours and configuration. At the same time, the retail sales personnel can take advantage of the technology by “suggesting” to customers an option they may not have thought of – allowing them to activate the option and demonstrate the benefits of the option instantly – this enables upselling which in turn increases the gross profit margin of the sale (as vehicle options have a much higher gross margin than the car itself).

A key example of this upselling technique is the Sunroof option – a customer may not think they would “need” a Sunroof, but the Salesperson can enable the option (in real-time) in the vehicle (while the customer is virtually sitting inside it). The salesperson and can highlight to the customer how much additional light comes into the car – this is accentuated by the high fidelity Virtual Reality environment that illustrates this type of effect profoundly.

All of this is of course not possible without a high fidelity VR system to produce the levels of graphics quality required. BMW for instance use HTC Vive Pro headsets via the SteamVR platform and leverages the 6 degrees of freedom for the user, allowing them to walk right around the vehicle. The system is specified with a dedicated high spec PC together with a high-end GPU that you would expect for any high-end VR system. The system also incorporates a daily schedule to check a cloud-based 3D asset repository of the latest variances to all the models and configuration options which change frequently.

It is vital for manufacturers (especially at the premium end of the market) to ensure that any VR system shows off the high quality of manufacture of the vehicle and the latest options available – nothing less would be acceptable.

Having the ability to show customers their desired configuration is a great benefit for the retail centre too. Although there are always plenty of cars on display in the showroom, seldom do the showrooms have the actual configuration (or even the right colour) of the car the customer wants. Being able to show them in VR gives them that unique ability that has never been possible previously.

This presents a win-win situation for both the customer and the retailer – for the potential buyer of the vehicle, having the ability to see their desired configuration of the car first hand is a great experience for them (wow factor). Aside from showcasing the vehicle’s exterior and interior, the VR platforms that have been developed by these leading manufacturers (through their technology partners) have multiple additional features, such as the ability to open and close the doors, fold down the seats, open the boot and sunroof. Furthermore, the vehicle can be placed in different environments, such as in a country environment, in a city or inside a showroom. It is also possible to show what the car looks like at night, showing the headlights and tail lights in a darkened environment – these effects help the salesperson show features such as LED lighting configurations which are often a key icon and look of any modern vehicle.

The example shown below of BMW’s latest MINI:

 

Example below from BMW’s EVE VR platform showing an interior view and country landscape:

 

 

An additional unique opportunity that a VR experience can produce is that a customer can experience an upcoming vehicle model that has not been released yet. This was possible due to the fact that the vehicle CAD drawings and 3D models are already developed and finalised – so this allowed the vehicle (and all its options) to be rendered directly onto the VR platform.

This provides the salesperson with the opportunity to show the customer the future vehicle in full scale and prompt them to place a pre-order for the vehicle, even before the first model left the production line, allowing the customer to be “one of the first” to own any newly released vehicle. This unique sales opportunity was never possible before the development of their VR platform.

Augmented Reality in Automotive Retail

The other key emerging medium for automotive retailers is the use of Augmented Reality to showcase their vehicle range. This presents another unique, new media opportunity that manufacturers can provide to their potential customers.

Customers can download their desired manufacturer vehicle range via apps to their smartphones or (for a better experience), to their tablet (or iPad). In this scenario, a customer can “place” their desired car within their own personal environment – they could place the virtual vehicle sitting in their home driveway, or parked out on their street by viewing the AR vehicle through the display of their smartphone or tablet. This provides a much more personalised experience for the customer, bringing their vehicle in to their home environment, without the pressure of being inside a showroom (or having the salesperson there, sitting right opposite them!). The unique graphical fidelity of AR experiences are equivalent to their VR counterparts – any part or area of the vehicle can be viewed in greater detail simply by moving closer to the object – this is illustrated in the screenshot below from Porsche’s AR app.

 

Porche’s AR App – Interior

 

Most of the AR-enabled automotive apps allow the user to interact with the vehicle, such as open and close the doors and boot, fold down the seats, turn the wheels and get inside the vehicle. More importantly, the apps allow the user to change the vehicle options such as the exterior colour, seats, wheels, interior configuration options and even show how the vehicle is built via a chassis and axle view (see screenshots below). Once the desired configuration is set, a QR code is generated and the configuration can be sent to the retailer for order.

Example screenshot below from Porsche’s AR apps are shown within a real-world driveway.

Conclusion and Future Outlook

Although still in its infancy, XR in automotive retail is transforming the way complex products such as motor vehicles are showcased to the potential client – purchasing a motor car is a critical choice for most people to make – usually the second most expensive item (after a house) that a person purchases in their lifetime. So many times when new purchases are made, they are done without knowing exactly what is being brought. Visualising the product in a full 3D high-quality representation helps make the process easier and gives the customer more confidence in what they are buying and what they expect to receive.

Not only the customer but the retailer can benefit hugely from XR. The latest VR and AR headsets incorporate eye-tracking – this allows the retailer to gain intimate real-time insight into what the customer is looking at within a given experience. Analytics and real-time eye tracking can enhance the sales journey further by providing a greater understanding of what the user is most interested in through their gaze at a particular part of the vehicle. Finally, retailers can deploy smaller showrooms as they can have fewer (or zero) physical vehicles on show. This can potentially realise huge savings in real estate costs.

 

 

There are however some drawbacks to XR technology in automotive retail (as of today!). Especially on the VR side – many people are still reluctant to put on a large, bulky VR headset, isolated from their immediate environment. This is especially the case if they have never seen one or understand what VR is – in addition to that, being in the sometimes intimidating location of a retail showroom with a salesperson sitting opposite can make the whole experience even more uncomfortable for some! We have seen examples around the world where there is a reluctance of some women not wanting to put on a headset as it might disturb their hair or mess with their makeup etc. This drawback however will go away in the not too distant future, as headsets become lighter and less obtrusive to wear.

AR solutions in automotive retail however are less cumbersome and use widely available hardware such as smartphones and tablets to access the technology. Still, the current AR use case is just in its interim state. Within the next 5 years, lightweight, high fidelity AR glasses will be available, you will not need to look through a phone or tablet, and the whole experience will be more immersive and easier to use.

 

The outlook for automotive retail is that it will only get better, but for now, it is still a revolutionary experience and a great showcase and industry vertical for eXtended Reality technology today.

About the author:

Richard is a Technology Consultant with expertise in providing XR Strategy, VR and AR Technology and Enterprise Architecture. Richard helps enterprises implement immersive tech at scale, leveraging cloud technology and device management where necessary. With over 30 years of industry experience gained within the computing domain, Richard has unique forward insights into what tangible emerging technology organisations should invest in next. Most recently, Richard directed the deployment of a high fidelity VR solution into the BMW retail centres worldwide for a global automotive retailer. Richard also presents and demonstrates spatial technology to CxO group workshops across industries and presents at XR conferences internationally.

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