ApplicationAutomotive & TransportationVirtual Reality

The Rise of Virtual Reality in Automotive Retail

Virtual reality has the potential to significantly drive brand affinity for car companies, justifying deployment as a brand engagement tool during promotional campaigns, events, or discovery on-site.

The experience of the customer is at the heart of all modern retail landscapes. Companies understand the power of differentiating themselves through experience. This has only evolved with the next generation of consumers. Nowadays, many consumers have an affinity with technology that has shaped their expectations. The automotive retail sector believes that this generation of car buyers are more inclined to seek out these experiences. As a result, virtual reality is being deployed in the sales and marketing process.

With new accessible hardware, virtual and augmented reality can integrate into existing pipelines. This introduces customer to digital vehicles on a whole new level. Configuration experiences can also be incorporated into any stage of the buyer’s journey.

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Virtual reality also provides methods of exploration and interaction not possible before. Consumers can now interact with features, change the environment, or even suspend all components of a vehicle in mid-air. Virtual reality has elevated the car buying journey through engagement.


Virtual Reality as a Medium to Add Value During the Sales Process

Car manufacturers often have the challenge of meeting the market of customized vehicles. A new car is a large investment, so people often want to be able to define each detail to have their own personalized car.

Before, the only way to do this was to show the car on brochures, or on digital screens. Sometimes decisions such as the type of material for the interior, were based on a picture. Many other options offered were also showcased this way.

In addition to that, people no longer spend that much time at the dealership anymore. The presence of car company websites is robust, allowing people to have access from pretty much anywhere. They are able to inform themselves about a vehicle before they walk into a dealership. Dealerships are no longer where discovery takes place, and haven’t been for quite some time.

Car dealerships had to react, and some are offering experiences through virtual reality. When a new technology has the potential to become the new standard between people and computers, adopting early is a big advantage.



One dealership that started investing early is Audi. They now have more than 400 “Customer Private Lounges” of virtual reality stations. Customers can get a realistic experience of their own configured car, down to the last detail. Using high fidelity 4K rendering creates a true-to-life appearance. This allows dealerships to present the entire Audi model range, including all options and features.

According to Nils Wollny, who is Head of Digital Business Strategy/Customer Experience at Audi AG,

“With the VR experience we have developed a full-fledged sales tool for Audi dealers. It offers our customers more information and certainty when making their purchasing decision. It is also a special excitement factor. We are taking the next step to combine digital innovation with the strengths of the bricks-and-mortar dealership.”

Audi virtual reality
Audi’s “Customer Private Lounges”



Earlier this year at 2018 CES, BMW debuted their new virtual reality tool aimed at enhancing the retail sales experience, VR@Retail. In this immersive environment, users were able to view and interact with the first-ever BMW X2 Sports Activity Vehicle.  VR@Retail gave them a chance to explore the interior and exterior, as well as customize features throughout, directly at select dealerships.

Recently, BMW also held a series of premiere events for current and prospective BMW customers. Zerolight, known for creating interactive content for automotive brands, partnered with BMW. Together, they created BMW’s M Drive Tour Virtual Experience.

BMW virtual reality
Users can configure the interior of their BMW

They were able to drive the complete range of models of BMW’s signature M vehicles around iconic race tracks. BMW M customers were invited to an online portal where they could configure their car online. During the event, they could load their configurations and explore it through virtual reality. They could see their car on the famous Le Mans race track do a lap in real-time. Used during the experience was a real BMW M5 car seat mapped to the virtual world and an HTC Vive Pro headset. Virtual reality users could also do things inside their virtual vehicle as a passenger. They could open doors or even configure the interior. They could also transport to the driver’s side and interact with the steering wheel, horn, mirrors, gear shifter, and more.

BMW M drive tour virtual reality experience
BMW M5 car seat mapped to a virtual race world



Nissan virtual reality
In a fully dynamic experience, customers could digitally explore and configure every inch of the Nissan LEAF, without a physical model present

Another automotive brand following the trend is Nissan. They wanted to maximize consumer awareness and engagement for the release of their new Nissan LEAF. So the company came out with the Nissan LEAF virtual reality experience, located at their Nissan Crossing building in Ginza, Japan. The experience allowed customers to explore the many configurations of the vehicle at-scale. Users were also able to interact with the charging port, or select between different paint colors.



In the Toyota C-HR virtual reality experience, the goal was to engage the consumer market and showcase the brand new model. The company installed the VR experience, featuring a configurable car at 1:1 scale, in shopping malls across Europe. Users were able to walk around, as well as interact with and explore the vehicle. Another Toyota’s noteworthy experience is an immersive VR driving adventure called The Night That Flows.

Toyota C-HR virtual reality car launch
All user controls in the Toyota C-HR experience, to interact with and configure the car, are entirely within the VR scene, with no requirement for a companion app


Critical Features of an Automotive Virtual Reality Experience and What’s Next

Visual quality and interactivity are two important features in the VR world. Especially within an automotive virtual reality experience. Customers want to believe what they are seeing. In this case, they want to have realistic experiences that could take the place of a physical car. The companies mentioned here focused on visual fidelity and true product representation. They ensured there were plenty of interactive features allowing for exploration.

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Car companies will continue to look at virtual reality as the technology matures. They will also find ways to use it in places on the customer journey where it makes sense. It is all about differentiation through experience. A constant innovation challenge that only brings about better experiences for the customer. Companies in general are beginning to see that if they do not invest in virtual reality, they are going to fall behind. They will need virtual reality to solve problems and make money. The automotive retail is just another sector looking to boost these initiatives.

Patricia Chang
the authorPatricia Chang
Patricia Chang is a South Florida-based freelance Digital Project Manager and XR Strategist. She is also a U.S. Navy veteran born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, and has also resided in the states of California, Hawaii, and New York. With her B.S. in Computer Information Systems and Master’s in Project Management, Patricia has a decade of experience working with businesses at strategic and operational levels from technology start-ups to major corporations. When not doing project-based initiatives, you can find Patricia obsessing over anything VR/AR related, including attending a VR development academy, in hopes to fine tune her future digital consultancy business.