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.
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.
Kühne told me that the plans were to use two tiers of VR showrooms in entertainment events 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.