Carmakers Build a Showroom in an App

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VENICE BEACH, Calif. -- Automakers trying to reach young buyers face a conundrum: How do they sell a car to people who stay away from a showroom?

"They won't come into the stores to educate themselves," said Peter Chung, general manager of Magic Toyota and Scion in Edmonds, Wash. "They'll do that online." More than half of the younger buyers surveyed by AutoTrader.com, a car-buying site, said they wanted to avoid interacting with dealership sales representatives.

In response, automakers like Cadillac and Toyota are starting to embrace technology that tries to take the showroom to the buyer. Known as augmented reality, it embeds images and videos in a picture on the user's smartphone or tablet. The result is a far more detailed view of the image, often in three dimensions with added layers of information.

For example, when Cadillac introduced the ATS last year, it created a campaign in cities across the country that allowed observers to point an iPad at a chalk mural and watch the car drive through scenes like China's mountainous Guoliang Tunnel and Monaco's Grand Prix circuit. The goal was to grab the attention of potential buyers, especially younger ones, who wouldn't normally think of Cadillac when researching new cars.

Later, Cadillac added the technology to its print advertising, pointing readers to download the brand's smartphone application to view a three-dimensional model of the car. The app allows users to zoom in on the car and turn it 360 degrees by swiping their finger across the screen.

"It's obviously different than going to a dealership, but at least it's enough to engage with the vehicle in an environment where they're comfortable," said Arianna Kughn, Cadillac's social media manager.

Audi has used the technology in its brochures and instruction manuals, while Toyota added it to a campaign with the computer-generated pop star Hatsune Miku to interest a younger audience in its 2012 Corolla and to increase the number of downloads of the automaker's shopping app.

Other businesses are seeing an opportunity as well. Metaio, a German software company with an office in San Francisco, has worked on projects for Audi, Volkswagen and Toyota.

Specular Theory, based here in Venice Beach, is using Hollywood production techniques to create renderings that allow users to open the doors of a car that isn't really there, peer inside and walk around, or take a test drive, merely by running their fingers over a phone or tablet screen.

Its founder, Morris May, is applying the expertise he developed over 20 years as a graphic designer on movies like "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones" and "Spider-Man 2" to redefine the way people view cars in the showroom, online and through mobile devices.

"We're changing the way people experience cars," Mr. May said, as he used his finger to open the car door of the virtual model displayed on his iPad, revealing the interior of the car, including the dashboard, steering wheel and texture of the seats.

The technology offers cost savings to automakers as well. Traditionally, automakers spend millions of dollars when marketing a new model, on photo shoots or building a "cookie-cutter configurator" that changes the car's colors or features on a Web site, Mr. May says.

When a new model is introduced, that work is scrapped, and the production team, which includes photographers, Web developers and media buyers, starts anew.

As an alternative, Specular Theory uses an automaker's computer-aided design data to create material that is consistent across Web browsers, phone and tablet screens and showroom floors, where dealers can project and modify life-size, three-dimensional car models.

When an automaker makes a minor change to, say, the tailpipe of next year's model, Specular Theory can eliminate the time and money spent creating a new campaign by tweaking data from the marketing materials.

Mr. May's model uses the weight of the car and the tension of the springs to calculate how it drives, controlling the car with a joystick.

Specular Theory, which started six months ago, is still in its infancy but has landed Autodesk, which makes three-dimensional design software for a variety of industries, as a client.

The automakers' move mirrors a trend across the retail industry, as smartphones become widely available and augmented reality evolves to a sales tool from a novelty, said Ken Nisch, chairman of JGA, a retail design and brand strategy firm based in Southfield, Mich.

"We're seeing some major moves from retailers like Macy's and Nordstrom," Mr. Nisch said. "In the next year or 18 months, we'll see a lot of momentum" in augmented reality used in marketing.

At the root of the interest among automakers is the wish to reach young buyers, who spend a lot of time looking at images of cars online, said Stephen Gandee, vice president for mobile and emerging technologies at Edmunds.com, a car-buying site. Much of the research in buying a car is done online today, and not just among young buyers. But automakers and dealers want to create a deeper connection.

"The emotional side of shopping -- you can't beat pictures," said Mr. Gandee, who is helping oversee the redesign of Edmunds.com's Web site to try to capture more of the emotional and visual appeal of the car-0buying experience. He said the site expected to have its own augmented reality prototype by next year.

Dealers are trying to change the way they communicate with a generation of car buyers who prize information and speed over the personal connection dealerships offer.

Many younger buyers no longer even test-drive a car before buying it, said Mr. Chung, the general manager of Magic Toyota and Scion. Instead, they read reviews and add features to their vehicle online before going to the dealership with the exact model and price they expect shown on their smartphone.

That's one reason Mr. Chung and other car dealers expect augmented reality to serve as a powerful selling tool in place of a sales associate.

"The consumer is no longer coming in and looking at 10 colors," Mr. Chung said. "They've seen all 10 colors online and know what they want."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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