The window for writing earnest "holy crap, VR is amazing" pieces largely closed years ago. We've written them ad nauseam, others have done the same (and for good reason, of course — VR is going to be one of the most transformative technologies of the next decade). Many of these pieces are great; some come about as close to conveying the experience of putting on modern, high-resolution, low-latency VR goggles as they possibly could without physically handing you a pair of your own to try on.
Now, as with drones, the conversation is shifting away from the whiz-bang of great VR hardware to applications. Cool, VR is usable now. What do we do with it?
Watching developers and companies try to answer that very big question is fascinating. At CES this year, Audi is showing a VR-based system that will immerse potential customers in the car of their choice — and this is completely real, not a proof of concept. A version of it will start rolling out to the company's flagship "Audi City" dealerships in the middle of the year.
The idea is that a potential Audi buyer wanders into a dealership, and the exact car they want isn't in stock. Maybe they want different options, maybe they want a different color combination — but in any event, the idea of buying a car sight unseen is a little terrifying. A salesperson fits the customer with the goggles and uses a tablet to guide the customer around the exterior and interior of the car, toggling options, color, and trim choices to see how they look in different environments. (In another version of the setup, the customer is given a one-button remote to change viewpoints without the salesperson's help, but the idea is basically the same.)
It sounds simple enough, but I don't know any other way to put it: I was in this car. I could practically feel it. I was walking up to it, looking at flecks in the paint from an inch away. Audi uses the HTC Vive's tracking to precisely orient you in the space of a small room fitted with a bench — so precisely, actually, that I was asked to slide a couple inches to the right so that I'd be exactly in the driver's seat. I wanted to reach out and grab the steering wheel of the blue R8 with black interior so badly. So, so badly.
It's the real deal — people will buy cars this way
Part of the magic in this system is the very serious horsepower behind it: Audi uses custom graphics drivers and a heavily tweaked build of Unity running on an HP workstation fitted with two Nvidia Quadro 6000 GPUs, aiming for a consistent 90 fps. The company notes that this is no game console racing sim — elements that are normally simple textures, like logos, are rendered polygons here. Each vehicle contains between 5 and 7 million polygons in total. They look ridiculously real, stymied only by the headset's limited resolution.
The Audi team cycled me in and out of an R8, changed the interior color options (I'm a fan of red interiors, personally), and changed environments, eventually landing on the surface of the moon. (It's unclear how the R8 got there, but I guess that's the beauty of VR.) Leaning in close to components of the car like the steering wheel and engine compartment causes them to start to dissolve, revealing what's underneath; the company tells me that by the time the system launches, this will also cause diagrams to pop up with facts and figures. Over 50 Audi models — basically everything Audi makes — will be supported.
All this is to say, it's a stunning way to get a sense of a car that might be hundreds of miles away at another dealership, or might not even be built yet. It's the real deal. People will buy cars this way.
Since this is a high-design German automaker we're talking about, the equipment isn't just lying around on a table: Audi's design team created a custom case for the headset, remote controller, and bespoke Bang & Olufsen headphones that actively pass through outside voices, so you can still hear the salesperson when you're inside the supercar Matrix. The case looks awesome, and honestly, Oculus should probably sell it as an accessory.
The case looks so good, Oculus should sell it as an accessory
Speaking of Oculus, Audi is working with both Oculus and HTC on the project; full-room installations in Audi City locations will use the Vive, but the company says that its initial discussions were with Oculus, and standard dealerships will use a Rift-based setup, optimized for a sitting experience. (Considering that neither system is on the market quite yet, that helps explain Audi's mid-2016 target for launch.)
I asked members of the team whether a Rift or Vive owner might someday be able to use this app in their own home rather than the comparably lame web configurators currently available, but it's not in the plans for the moment — they point to the workstation, for instance, which has considerably more graphics horsepower than even a decent gaming PC.
Still, I'd put on pants and drive to a dealership for this. I may not ever own a real R8 — but then again, real R8 owners can't use their cars on the moon. Who's the real winner here?