The coolest vehicle I saw at AutoMobilityLA (aka, the LA Auto Show) this week wasn't even real, at least initially. To debut its new I-PACE all-electric crossover, Jaguar herded media into a Hollywood studio with a dozen or so tables in a large room, each topped with HTC Vive VR headsets, Dell Precision workstations, stereo headphones, and a joystick controller.
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Keep in mind that automotive journalists are a jaded bunch, and I heard a few grumbles from one writer who falls into the category we in the biz call a "Frank Bacon." I also don't think the thumping EDM-light music we heard through the headphones while waiting (for quite a while) for the reveal to begin helped. Eventually, we entered an animated experience of what Jaguar dubbed the "world-first VR reveal" of a concept I-PACE. I'm sure it won't be the last.
A digitized host introduced Jaguar's superstar car designer Ian Callum in pixelated form, who proceeded to sketch out the lines of the vehicle in light and add other details until the I-PACE was built piece by piece. VR was also used to show how the battery packs are arrayed in the vehicle and how much luggage can fit in the "boot." We used the joysticks to rotate 3D images.
While VR enabled some cool special and spatial effects, such as giving participants a floating-in-space satellite view of the US West Coast to demonstrate the more than 220-mile range of the I-PACE, the coolest tech trick was the way each participant was placed in the cockpit of a virtual I-PACE, first behind the wheel and then in the backseat. The details of the VR rendering of the vehicle's interior, while a bit cartoonish, were real enough to make you want to reach out and touch them, and even elements like the logos on the virtual speaker grilles were intact.
Showing the Greasy Bits in 3D
While this was all pretty impressive, the most practical application for the VR tech was to show the vehicle's greasy bits. Jaguar demonstrated how the electric motors work, for example, by suspending them at just above eye level for an in-your-face 3D view. Displaying the suspension system of a single wheel was so realistic that I instinctively pulled away to avoid getting hit in the head by a life-size spinning tire.
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When the VR portion was over, the actual I-PACE Concept in real sheet metal was revealed. But you don't have to be a car journalist to experience the vehicle via VR since a dedicated Jaguar mobile app is available on the Viveport app store.
While there was a certain gimmicky element to what Jaguar called "the largest live and connected VR event of its type to date," I expect to see more VR reveals like this. But the publicity stunt highlights the potential consumer-oriented applications of VR for car companies.
Imagine trying various vehicles on for size from the comfort of your own computer to test the legroom and headroom and really get a sense of the size of the cabin. Gearheads could take a deep dive into an engine, transmission, or suspension, while geeks could scrutinize dashboard displays and infotainment options. And shoppers could virtually outfit a vehicle with different interior colors and materials.
The possibilities are unlimited. And after the Jaguar I-PACE reveal, I expect VR to not only become a popular way for automakers to unveil new cars but also a common method to help sell them.