I was prepared to be cynical, really I was. On paper, launching a car via virtual reality, as Jaguar has just done with its groundbreaking new electric I-Pace, sounded like the kind of high-concept idea that doesn’t work half as well in practice as it does in the espresso-fuelled minds of a team of creative types.
If the car being presented to us isn’t real, I reasoned beforehand, how can we do important journalistic stuff like studiously prod buttons, check out the proportions and dimensions and nosily stick our heads under bonnets and boot lids?
In addition, Jaguar Land Rover’s new car launches are becoming stuff of high-budget legend. In the recent past we’ve had the Jaguar F-Pace looping the loop and the Land Rover Discovery driving over a Tower Bridge made from Lego. Launching a car in a virtual world didn’t sound quite so head-turning by comparison.
I’ve temporarily shelved my cynicism - this was without a doubt the coolest car launch I’ve ever attended in the real world or the virtual one.
I’ll try to describe it, although appreciate that chronicling a virtual reality experience runs the risk of being one of those 'you had to be there' moments. Bear with me.
We sat at circular tables in a darkened room at a location called Milk Studios in Hollywood and donned HTC Vive VR headsets and headphones.
Each headset had a glowing neon frame, so you see other participants around the room. Off to one side were more glowing headsets. It transpired that these belonged to people at a separate studio in London, where Jaguar had created a second VR hub. We could hear them and wave at them as if they were in the room with us.
In the darkened VR world, up popped Andy Jaye, the radio and television presenter compering Jaguar’s launch. He was located in a room elsewhere in the building in LA, being projected in 3D into the virtual space. Then in strolled Jaguar’s design chief Ian Callum, who explained the I-Pace’s design as the car began to take shape alongside him.
Of course, the VR world can put you anywhere in the universe. One minute we were in space, looking down on the Earth as Jaye quizzed Callum on the design origins of the I-Pace. The next minute we were at Venice Beach in LA, sitting in the driver’s seat of the I-Pace and examining the cabin in detail.
It was a fully immersive experience. As Ian Hoban, Jaguar’s vehicle line director, appeared to explain the technology underpinning the I-Pace, it was possible to zoom in on components such as suspension or the battery pack using a hand-held controller.
To cap it all, once we removed our headsets and left the VR world, the real Jaguar I-Pace Concept had been wheeled out in front of us.
I was at a Renault event at the recent Paris motor show that used VR to showcase the new Trezor concept car, but the scale and ambition of Jaguar’s effort was certainly on a different level to any VR stunt I’ve experienced before.
Jaguar claims this was the largest live and connected VR event of its type to date, and it is clear that some serious resources went into making it work.
Jaguar worked with HTC, which supplied its latest Vive headsets, headphones and VR controllers (about £1000 per kit for each of the 66 guests who attended one of the launches Jaguar hosted during the day). Dell provided the computing power required to run the VR systems, and Jaguar employed a virtual reality director named Alexander Horton to direct the launch event.
Horton, a Brit who drives a Land Rover Defender, told me he had about 12 weeks to take the project from concept to reality, although Jaguar had laid the groundwork months earlier.
“I’ve never done a product reveal. The other things I’ve done have been brand experiences aimed at elevating awareness of a particular brand,” he said.
Horton - who also describes himself as a “failed product designer who has the same degree as Ian Callum, albeit 20 years later” – explained that one of the key challenges was to create an environment which didn’t distract viewers from the I-Pace.
“We’re not going to eclipse the car with visceral stunts that hit you in the face. It was all about restraint, letting the car and the designers speak,” he said.
Jaguar has plans to make the virtual presentation available for anyone with suitable kit via Vive Port, an online VR app store.
It’s one thing opening up this kind of experience to some A-list celebs and Z-list journalists, but as VR technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, this could present an effective way for car companies to get closer to the customers who buy their models.
The future could involve customers in Scunthorpe, Sao Paulo or Sydney donning VR headsets and virtually jumping to an exotic location where a new car will be presented to them. Anyone will be able to attend.
VR technology could become an integral part of car buying too, allowing dealers to offer customers a ‘virtual test drive’ of forthcoming models, whetting their appetites for what’s coming to market.
Could the traditional process of seeing, feeling, touching (and even smelling) a product before parting with your money be completely supplanted by a trip into a virtual world? Would you ever buy a car on that basis? Online shopping means we frequently buy all manner of goods on the internet without seeing them in the flesh.
Either way, the launch of the Jaguar I-Pace used new technology to great emphasis. I’m not sure the simple act of pulling a dust sheet off a car is ever going to have quite the same impact again.