Virtual Reality Sweeps Auto Industry, From Designing Cars to Driving Them

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Auto virtual reality

“Real” reality is favoring automakers these days, but they think they can make it even better with virtual reality. From R&D labs to factories to showrooms and all points in between, car companies are putting on the Oculus Rift goggles and Google Cardboard glasses, building VR into apps and otherwise trying to push the technology to new limits in search of an edge over current practice—and the competition.

Audi, for example, has been rolling out a new VR system with Oculus Rift that an executive called “the most flexible sales format ever invented in the car industry.” The Audi Virtual Reality Experience wearable tech allows shoppers to customize the ideal configuration of the Audi they want and view the car inside and out from a first-person perspective, according to Automotive News.

“Audi dealers can show for the first time the entire model range conveniently wherever the customer wants—in a boutique shop, or premium downtown shopping malls, in customers’ living room, or at work or at the racetrack—especially important for a sporty brand like Audi,” said Luca de Meo, who is in charge of Audi sales and marketing.

Similarly, Ferrari is equipping its dealers with VR-powered tablets that can scan the cars on the showroom floor and then bring them up in any configuration. Shoppers can virtually swap paint colors, wheel and tire packages, brake kits and more, according to Road & Track, or take a digital glimpse behind the real-life sheetmetal to understand the car’s mechanics. BMW is testing something similar for its new 7 Series.

Chrysler also found an engaging consumer application of VR in putting together an interactive experience that used Google mapping technology to allow consumers to explore the five-million-square-foot assembly plant in Michigan where it builds the Chrysler 200 sedan. When Fiat Chrysler launched the car last year, its related campaign featured a “Makers” theme that showed off the Sterling Heights, Mich., plant, and the all-new 200 with a Factory Tour online.

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Last fall, Volvo used VR for a “test-drive” experience on Google Cardboard to build up to this year’s launch of the new XC90 SUV, a crucial new product for the Chinese-owned brand that is trying to come back in the US market.

Moving even further back in the pipeline, Chevrolet designers and engineers have been using a PowerWall high-definition screen that is 24 feet tall and has “more pixels than an IMAX theater,” to use VR to spur the creative design process. Ford has been using Oculus Rift to help design vehicles for several years now, a technology that Honda has been exploring as well.

Toyota found an entirely different use for VR innovation: demonstrating the dangers of distracted driving. At the 2015 New York International Auto Show in April, Toyota used Oculus glasses to show users just how hard it can be to drive safely with all the distractions in a car, including friends in the car telling the driver to check his or her text messages. The simulation also included loud music, a low-flying flock of birds, sirens and road construction.

“It was like, ‘Oh God, no. Oh no, there’s sirens and where am I?'” Andreas West, a teen driver who slapped on the Oculus Rift goggles, told CBS News. “‘Oh no… I crashed into a car.'”

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