Nissan pilots a Kinect experience for a virtual showroom
Gary Carr, general manager of Pittsburgh East Nissan, demonstrates the Pathfinder Kinect Experience in the showroom.
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A certain amount of gamesmanship has always been part of car shopping.
Nissan is counting on that as it tests out a new display that uses the technology of Microsoft's Kinect for Windows to give customers a pseudo-test drive of the 2013 Pathfinder.
The vehicle itself won't be available to take onto the streets for another month, but two of the 16 Nissan dealerships pioneering the "virtual" Pathfinder nationally happen to be in this region.
Pittsburgh East Nissan, along Route 22 in Wilkins, and West Hills Nissan in Moon, are both owned by Mike McWilliams. He sits on the automaker's Advertising Review Committee, which is involved in figuring out which marketing programs will be used to sell cars.
Trying out the Pathfinder in front of the flatscreen TV set up in the Pittsburgh East Nissan dealership's showroom requires a willingness to abandon some dignity.
An official company description says users will go through "an array of natural movements, such as extending their hands, stepping forward and back, as well as leaning from side to side...." Just how natural the movements are, customers can decide for themselves.
Earlier this week, Gary Carr, general manager of the Pittsburgh East dealership, gamely demonstrated how the system works. He stood a few feet in front of the TV and the motion-sensing Kinect device.
On the screen, an animated version of a glossy 2013 Pathfinder sat in a massive, empty, virtual warehouse. Mr. Carr held up a hand to open the front passenger door and the shape of a hand appeared on the screen. The door opened and the screen showed the front dashboard inside.
At times, the system seemed to require a virtual driver's license. Take a step in the wrong direction and the viewer is suddenly in the backseat with the EZ Flex seating system, rather than up front admiring the live weather updates from the Nissan Navigation System. When Mr. Carr tried to get behind the vehicle to show the rear view, the system's attention was distracted by other people standing nearby.
Even shiny silver balloons attached to the real-life blue Leaf parked nearby can be a distraction for the Kinect if they are positioned too close, the dealership's staff learned.
The auto industry has been performing relatively well this year and Edmunds.com is predicting 14.4 million cars will be sold in 2012, up from the Santa Monica, Calif., automotive site's initial forecast of 13.6 million. Unless high gasoline prices and an uncertain economy slow things down, that would mean 13 percent growth over last year.
Still, Edmunds.com noted in a report issued earlier this month that it is counting on a surge in business at end-of-year sales events and deals from automakers competing for market share.
If dealers are to compete, they need to get customers' attention.
Nissan, which is based in Yokohama, Japan, first tried out Microsoft's Kinect technology at 2012 auto shows in New York and Chicago. The company wants the technology to generate buzz.
Kinect, which started out for use with the XBox 360 gaming system, has been picked up for use in other fields, including medical rehabilitation, music videos and even athletic training.
Tapping interactive technology is a good idea for Nissan, in the view of John R. Pugh, director of the automotive group of Chicago-based exhibit business Czarnowski, which creates auto show exhibits in its operation on Pittsburgh's North Side.
"With limited space in all these environments, the Microsoft Kinect technology allows for a fun, informative and engaging way to experience all the models, all the colors and all the options available for the entire product line," Mr. Pugh said. He believes the automaker could take this further, even designing an interactive marketing campaign using the Kinect and social media.
If Pathfinder passes the test, Mr. Carr expects the system will be used to offer virtual views of redesigned versions of lines like the Sentra, the Versa Hatchback and the Rogue set to arrive in the next year or so.
Customers at the Wilkins dealership have been trying out the device, which was installed a few weeks ago. "There are people getting their cars serviced who walk over and try it out," Mr. Carr said. On a good day, 10 to 15 people might give it a wave.
He doesn't expect it to actually sell cars -- "automobiles are still a touch-it, feel-it kind of purchase" -- but it's one more way for customers to do their research.
In the 24 years that Mr. Carr has been in the business, he has seen a lot of different marketing ideas come through. This one has merit, he said. "It beats the 'we don't have them yet, they're not here yet' pitch."
It doesn't do much about the very traditional problem that dealerships have always had toward the end of a model year.
Through the massive showroom windows behind the Kinect-powered display touting the 2013 Pathfinder sat a shiny, white 2012 Pathfinder, still waiting to be sold.
First Published September 28, 2012 12:32 am