BY JAMES B. TREECE | JULY 4th 2016
I'm sitting in a nondescript conference room with three visitors and Staff Reporter Vince Bond, adjusting the focus on a bulky set of goggles.
Suddenly, I'm in a design studio, watching a Ferrari revolve on a turntable. I'm pulling down its price and specs on a screen to the side, changing its colors from red to silver and then, moving inside, I'm switching the seats from leather to cloth and the shifter from a manual to an automatic. Outside the car again, I look to my right to see a Corvette parked on a platform. At my command, it backs out and a BMW drives up in its place.
Then, I'm in a warehouse looking at muscle cars: Mustang, Camaro, Challenger. Again, I change the colors and the viewing angles, but this time I'm also flipping through a choice of music from the nearby jukebox.
Next, I'm cruising on an open road, watching the telephone poles trot away in the rearview mirror. The images are crisp and detailed, down to the mandatory warning labels on the sun visors.
Welcome to cars in virtual reality.
The other folks in the conference room are from EVOX Images. The company takes photos of 10 to 20 vehicles a week: interiors, exteriors, 360-degree panoramas. You've seen their new-car photos on third-party and dealership websites. All vehicles are shot from the same angles to allow bumper-to-bumper comparisons.
Since January 2015, EVOX has been taking 3-D photos as well, building a library to serve the virtual-reality boom it foresees. The goggles that I'm using -- actually, a Gear VR headset -- take a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, but EVOX doesn't care whether VR systems use Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, or whatever. They want to supply the images.
Today, their biggest clients are folks in product development. Internally, that means letting designers review styling changes in 3-D after manipulating images rather than remaking a clay model. Externally, that means easier and less expensive focus groups.
David Weber, EVOX vice chairman, and Pat Hadnagy, vice president of virtual reality, tell of an unnamed automaker that rented the Long Beach (Calif.) Convention & Entertainment Center for two weeks to run a series of focus groups.
The carmaker constructed stages with lighting and curtains to show first one car and then another, with all badging stripped off, to gauge consumers' reactions. The plan then called for breaking it all down, carting it to a Midwest city and doing it again.
About halfway through, the company realized it would be cheaper to fly 200 Midwesterners to Long Beach than to pack up and move the set.
Their point: 200 fold-up cardboard virtual-reality headsets, similar to one that The New York Times distributed to folks a year or so ago, would have been even cheaper.
The headsets would have allowed for biometric feedback, too. Did a consumer's pulse quicken just a bit when he saw the redesigned Camaro? In the first 60 seconds, what part of the car did he glance at most often?
EVOX is thinking beyond automakers and designers. Once enough headsets and software are available, why couldn't dealerships mail out cardboard headsets embossed with the store's logo and a link to an app that allows a shopper at home to take a virtual-reality tour of the dealership's new-vehicle offerings?
How soon could this happen? That depends on having more virtual-reality headsets in the hands of consumers. EVOX thinks that might happen in the second half. They hint at a surge if VR headsets become a hit gift for Christmas.
I see potential for virtual reality in auto retailing. The wow and geek factors both are pretty high. But there are barriers to acceptance that go beyond consumer adoption of the technology.
An acquaintance at a California dealership asked for the headsets to help sales. He had just a single, purple unit of the brand's flagship model.
He thought showing shoppers what it looked like in red might help sell more of the high-ticket vehicle.
But when the EVOX folks asked how it was going, the dealership staffer had to admit that the sales manager had banned the headsets. He wanted the staff to sell what was on the lot, not what was on the virtual-reality stage.