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Virtual reality drives its way into cars

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Virtual reality has been all the buzz this year, with the release of Oculus Rift. Strap on the $600 headset, and it's the next best thing to being there -- wherever "there" might be. A lot of auto makers are tapping the wearable tech as a way to virtually experience their vehicles without ever having to sit in an actual driver's seat. We ask CNET's Brian Cooley to explain.

The Ride: What is virtual reality and how does it work?
Cooley: The virtual reality technology is probably the belle of the ball so far this year in terms of tech buzz. The simple idea is you put on a pair of goggles that completely take over your view. Inside those goggles are little tiny video screens, and what’s on those screens is what you see. It’s where you are because that’s all you see. It’s all around you. It’s in surround. It’s not just ahead of you. And you also have headphones on, so the audio has been replaced with the sound that goes with the world that you see. So it transports you, if you will, to another place. And it’s pretty convincing stuff.  Of course a lot of folks hear about it because of products like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive that have just come on the market, which are these headsets that can do this.

The Ride: Have you tried these things?
Cooley: I’ve used a number of these. I’ll tell you that it’s early days. I like it or am underwhelmed by it depending on how the content is used. It doesn’t come down to how well does the head-mounted display work or anything like that. It’s not about the hardware. It’s about how smart you utilize this idea of surround, being-there media. And that is done either very poorly or very well in the early days depending on who has gone out and shot the content that you watch or, basically, visit.

The Ride: How does VR fit with car companies, who are already using computer-assisted design and 3D printing to cut costs and the time needed to create new cars?
Cooley: The big difference here is the fish bowl. When you see someone in front of a big design computer and they’re designing the car and they can spin the thing around on the screen, they’re on the outside of the object. They basically are the fish bowl. In VR, you’re inside the fish bowl, and the content, the imagery or the subject, is all around you. That’s really interesting, how it’s flipped, especially if you want to experience and/or design cars.
If you want to get a feel for what it’s like to be driving one in certain situations, or if you want to get a feel for how it’s like to be in an autonomous car and see how it feels when it wants to get your attention again and says, you need to take back control, it’s nice to be there — to be surrounded by the environment, to really feel like you’re experiencing it. And that’s why I think automotive design and automotive sampling by consumers is going to be a bright spot for this VR stuff.

The Ride: It’s interesting that you mention feeling because there’s no tactile element to VR.
Cooley: There is not actual physical feel with VR, so there is a big shortcoming. Let’s face it. We like to go to the showroom to check out cars in terms of how’s the room around me, is my head hitting the ceiling, is the seat nice and soft, what do the textures feel like. You can’t do that in VR. It’s not that kind of reality. It should be called VVR — visual virtual reality because that’s about what it can do.

The Ride: So VR is being used to design and also to sell cars.
Cooley: A lot of car makers are doing both. They’re doing design with VR, and they’re also starting to craft experiences where consumers can go to a virtual showroom in VR. On the design side, the value of VR, companies like Ford are starting to get designers from different teams together to use VR. It’s just early days on this, but let’s say you’ve got someone from body design, interior and cabin design. You’ve got another team designing the tires and wheels on that car. They can all huddle around the same car in a sense. They use VR by transmitting these images and data files to their different design centers, which, by the way, are often in different parts of the world. So it’s a really amazing way to collaborate because you feel like you’re going there to the same design studio where the mockup is as opposed to you’re all sitting back and looking at a flat image on a computer screen. There’s a certain presence that allows everyone to be on the same page and have more of the heartbeat and the DNA of a car.

The Ride: And on the sales side?
Cooley: One of the most interesting stories here that came out a few weeks ago was when the head of Cadillac came out and made an early trial balloon when he said some of our smallest Cadillac dealers across the country, in small towns that maybe only sell a few Cadillacs a month, maybe shouldn’t have any stock on the showroom floor at all. Instead, bring your customers in to use VR and maybe also use a tablet to put on the goggles and build the car in a virtual showroom. No cars are there. No Cadillacs, but you can actually pick the car you want, figure out the color options and then jump inside, look around inside and say, yep, that’s the one I want. And it will be ordered from a regional warehouse instead.
First of all, it’s a radical idea for the car dealers in terms of how they do their business. But it’s a really different way of encountering a vehicle from the ground up. The problem is that in America, we are unusual. We like to go to the car dealers on a weekend, and spend an entire weekend chasing around those big car lots and find the car we want and then after a two-hour negotiation and financing meeting we’ve found our car. In most other developed car markets, it’s the opposite. Most people never bring their car home that weekend. They order it. They just want to see a sample car at the showroom. And that’s where VR’s really interesting. You can get a pretty good feel for a vehicle by just seeing it in VR. Of course you can’t sit in it and feel the seats and feel the acceleration. You can’t do a real test drive, although Volvo has been doing virtual test drives in their new crossover, the XC90. You don’t get the full experience, but you get maybe a third of it.

The Ride: So what are the chances VR will stick around for the car industry?
Cooley: I’ve got mixed feelings about VR in general and therefore also in the automotive space. I believe the automotive space is one of the bright spots, along with things like sampling hotels, choosing airline seats, going to locations for vacation before you actually go there. In the automotive business, I think there’s a lot of common DNA with those other industries. On the other hand, I think that VR may end up being narrow and deep. You may not use it all that often, but when you do there’s nothing like it. This is kind of similar to buying cars. It’s something we do infrequently, but we do it really deep. Every few years, we buy a car — not every week or every month. But when we do so, we’re kind of all in for a few weeks while we absorb and obsess about all the choices. So it may map really well to car buying in general.