Virtual showrooms may become a reality in near future

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Imagine shopping for a new car at a dealership that keeps no cars on the lot. Or test-driving a new truck from your couch.

The app is designed to show the benefits of virtual reality — from instantly changing colors and trim levels to offering virtual test rides.

Both are possible with a new virtual-reality app from Evox Productions LLC that could transform the car-buying experience.

“We think VR is going to be the next big thing,” said Dave Weber, vice president of sales and marketing for the Rancho Dominguez, California-based company.

“It’s not just for the auto industry. It’s going to have as large an impact as a smartphone or the iPod or color TV. There’s going to be a very steep ramp-up.”

Cadillac, Infiniti, Fiat and others have discussed virtual showrooms and other digital experiences as ways to help dealers cut inventory costs and provide an enhanced experience for potential buyers.

Evox parlayed nearly 20 years of experience with auto websites and photography to create RelayCars, a virtual-reality app that can be downloaded at the Oculus Store for Samsung Galaxy phones.

It’s used with the Galaxy GearVR, a virtual reality headset that interfaces with the smartphone and is the only such system on the market.

Evox is using the app as a proving ground to show the benefits of virtual reality to the industry — from instantly changing colors and trim levels in a virtual showroom, to offering virtual test rides.

“In the really small markets, that’s where virtual reality becomes an interesting strategy,” said Cadillac spokesman Andrew Lipman, adding that Cadillac is simply researching the possibilities.

“It’s a way for them to be able to sell cars without having to hold an excessive inventory.”

So far Evox has more than 1,000 vehicles ready for virtual reality. Its app, which features about 20 vehicles, has been viewed 600,000-plus times since Samsung began offering the headsets in November.

“You can’t really talk about VR, you have to experience VR,” said Pat Hadnagy, Evox vice president of virtual reality. “You feel like you’re in the car.”

That “feel” includes revving American muscle cars in a factory, spinning a Tesla Model X in a virtual showroom, sitting in a BMW convertible along the coast or taking a car on a test ride.

RelayCars uses special 3-D photos with some computer-generated imagery. The virtual images do not appear grainy or cartoonish like some movies or video games.

Potential buyers can “sit” in the car and look around the interior. They can change interior colors and other details.

The virtual test ride provides an idea of what it would be like to be sitting in the driver’s seat — but not the actual experience of driving or the force of acceleration.

Ind-rdustry officials see virtual reality as a way for consumers to easily search through different cars, colors and trim levels.

Consumers could make their car in a virtual setting, somewhat like automakers do with current websites, but to a whole other level.

The experience isn’t intended to replace dealerships anytime soon.

A view from inside a Ferrari using a virtual-reality app from Evox Productions.

“Any technology that makes it easier for the consumer to visualize themselves in the vehicle is good,” said Jeff Laethem, president of Ray Laethem Buick GMC and Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Grosse Pointe. “The interesting part to me is fulfilling orders quickly.”

Laethem said having the right inventory to satisfy demand is always a concern. If a dealer didn’t have their exact vehicle on the lot, he said, virtual reality could be a “home run.”

Ford Motor Co. recently opened a 5,200-square-foot experience center in a swanky shopping center in Newport Beach, California for its Lincoln brand that is a more personal, low-pressure way for customers to learn about — and potentially buy — vehicles.

The Lincoln store has a very select amount of vehicles. It is a space where virtual reality could be used to help customers customize their own vehicle, although the company did not mention it when announcign the store opening.

Consumers are expected to be the main target for the virtual reality products, but some companies are interested for design, sales training and cross-shopping.

Evox, according to Weber, is in discussions with “a number of different companies” to sell its service.

According to a recent study on different generations of car buyers, 56 percent of millennials (born between 1982 and 1998) — the largest car-buying population — surveyed want to avoid salesperson interaction. That’s 7 percentage points higher than Generation X (1966 through 1981) and substantially higher than baby boomers at 37 percent.

“The younger car shoppers, they’re used to technology,” Weber said. “Those are the car shoppers of the future.”

Evox isn’t the only one working to change car buying for new generations.

Fiat Chrysler unveiled a prototype of an “augmented reality” sales app at Mobile World Congress designed and built by Accenture Digital.

The program allows car buyers to hold a smartphone or other device up wherever they may be and a Fiat 500 appears on the screen. They can walk around, look inside and configure a life-size car.

“We think we can deliver a very massive, engaging experience with augmented reality,” said Accenture Digital Innovation Senior Manager Matteo Aliberti.

Augmented reality, which the popular “Pokemon GO” app uses, differs from virtual reality because it blends the physical world with generated 3-D objects.

No headset is required, just a phone, tablet or other device with the program installed. It uses renderings of the vehicle instead of actual photos to display the vehicle in the setting that the phone’s camera is pointed at.

The company is expected to release the program beginning in September as a step toward virtual reality, but with less substantial investment in programming and equipment.

“It’s impossible for a dealership to have all of the configurations for a specific model,” Aliberti said. “We see this as a very big aid for the dealerships.”

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Twitter: @MikeWayland