Audi Harnessing VR to Make Car Buying Virtually Irresistible

by Brian Caulfield
Audi VR experience advanced setup
Audi VR experience advanced setup.

Encouraged by rapid advances in VR technology, Audi is transforming its approach to selling vehicles.

But it’s not always been a smooth ride.

When it started working with VR in its retail setting four years ago, the German carmaker kept hitting speed bumps arising from inadequate frame and latency rates, making for an unrealistic experience.

Now – with frame rates improved to 90 per second from 50 at the beginning and latency having dropped from 45 milliseconds to just 20 – it’s ready for the (virtual) open road.

Audi will shortly start a pilot of the VR work, which will allow car buyers to tour any Audi vehicle – from the ferocious R8 coupe to a capacious Q7 SUV – as if it’s in the room, and to see it in varying styles and colors. And it’s expected to roll out VR to its dealerships by yearend.

The goal: To make trips to the dealership more appealing for buyers, said Thomas Zuchtriegel, Audi’s digital retail solutions team lead, who spoke in a crowded session at our GPU Technology Conference last month.

“When they go to the dealership, it needs to be an emotional and exciting experience,” Zuchtriegel said.

And that means providing more than just realistic imagery. With GPUs powering Audi partner ZeroLight’s visualization system, Audi has been able to make the additional refinements it wanted.

For instance, after it initially achieved its target frame and latency rates, Audi decided it wanted an X-ray effect that would let potential buyers peer into the substructure of a vehicle. That required vehicles to be rendered four times to achieve the clarity that VR demands, and ZeroLight was able to help Audi do this while preserving the frame and latency rates.

But it turned out that, even peering into a vehicle’s hidden structure wasn’t enough, according to project lead Marcus Kuehne.  The company wanted to take the experience a step further than that.

“If you make things look possible that are not possible in reality, that excites people,” said Kuehne.

So when customers come into an Audi dealership in the near future, they’ll put on the VR headset (the system runs on both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive platforms), and tour an Audi vehicle sitting on a beautiful mountain road, or even amid a lunar landscape. The system will also provide for pure entertainment experiences such as walking around a lunar setting without even looking at a car, or taking a drive in an Audi race car.

Those kinds of details will be left up to individual dealers. The system is designed to be scalable, allowing dealers to decide what experiences they’d like to provide.

Zuchtriegel even acknowledged that VR could eventually let Audi more easily sell vehicles directly to consumers, bypassing dealerships entirely.

At the moment, however, the company is focused on introducing the VR experience at dealerships, and that’s plenty to keep Kuehne’s creative juices flowing.

“This is the coolest project I’ve ever had, but it’s only the beginning,” Kuehne said. “We have so many ideas.”