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OPINION8 August 2016

The reality of using VR and AR in automotive

Automotive Innovations Opinion UK

There are many challenges facing the car market as it experiments, builds and deploys virtual and augmented reality but there is also much to be gained says LIDA’s Sam Ellis.

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are all the rage in every sector of every market. As they should be. Both technologies have the potential to genuinely transform industries, change consumer behaviour, and provide a new creative canvas for incredible content. 

With the recent launches of Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, the imminent launch of PlayStation VR, the ongoing development of the Google Cardboard platform, developer kits for Microsoft HoloLens and the almost mythical potential of Magic Leap, there has never been a more interesting time to create alternative reality experiences.

However, there are significant challenges in both getting experiences to market and creating something truly engaging. Too many companies are significantly underestimating the challenge of developing VR and AR, or even whether this technology is right for their specific industry or challenge.

Although many sectors are trying to get in on the action, a significant proportion of the work we have seen in these ‘alternative reality’ scenarios has been in the automotive category – and with good reason as there are some fantastic examples.

Tesla has already proven that you don’t really need dealers in the traditional sense with their direct sales platform. Audi has built its MK1 digital dealer experience in London and is taking it to MK2 with VR and AR. ZeroLight has created the world’s most advanced car configurator so you can design your perfect spec at home and Jaguar Land Rover has created a variety of different ongoing platforms, from direct mail packs that come to life, to in-dealership views of future models.

But even with the huge advantages of already having highly detailed 3D models of their vehicles, VR and AR projects are hard. Really hard. And not to be undertaken without a serious understanding of the pitfalls that bedevil all technology innovations at an early stage of the hype cycle.

Those 3D models need to be downscaled to work on the current platforms available to normal people. The balance between getting the best quality, versus achieving sufficient ‘lag’ to make the experience useable, is a fine one.

There are many considerations to take into account: from choosing which platform to develop for from the myriad available; choosing whether the focus should be on less powerful mobile solutions so people can have full freedom of movement, or high powered but static desktop rigs; or employing a third party agency as a one off, against creating the resource in-house for ongoing development. 

There are many challenges. If you go mobile, battery life is an issue. If you go desktop, it can be cost prohibitive for multiple locations. Third party platforms like Unity or Unreal might not keep up with Android or iOS, and break your experience.

Some people find the experience nauseating, others don’t like their hair being messed up. Markers used to trigger experiences can be affected by smudged camera lenses or too much light. Plus, don’t forget the end user, often a dealer salesperson, and their familiarity and ability to demonstrate what is in reality quite complex technology.

VR and AR will never be the answer to every problem. There is nothing like the feel of a steering wheel and perfecting a heel and toe gear change, or the smell of the leather and the way natural light reflects off a vehicle’s highly honed lines.

Until autonomous beige people transports are ubiquitous, there will continue to be an emotional connection with the physical automotive product that cannot, and should not, be underestimated. We have a responsibility to not fill this new alternative reality with lots of poorly conceived, under budget, under resourced, and quite frankly terrible executions. Let’s not take it lightly. 

Sam Ellis is business director, innovation at LIDA

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