Volvo says I saw the future of car dealerships earlier today.
I was invited to sit on a sofa in a virtual showroom. I was wearing Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality headset with a small hologram of the never-before-seen Volvo S90 floating in front of me.
I tapped a finger in the air to select a color (red) and trim (silver). Tapped a third time and that little model flew off the coffee table and transformed into a full-sized car sitting on a rotating platform on the other side of the room.
And just like that, Volvo for the first time unveiled a new vehicle — entirely virtually. The company says the model I was looking at won’t be revealed in “reality” until January, but one day it hopes to introduce more cars like this via augmented reality.
The S90 looked slick, but I must say I was a little distracted by the fact that I was looking at a hologram to fully appreciate the car itself.
Volvo executives told me after the demonstration on Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., campus that they’ve been working with the HoloLens team for about nine months now. Volvo takes a baby-steps approach to adopting new technologies, and it sees huge applications for augmented reality, whether it’s for a virtual showroom, like I experienced, or just letting enthusiasts explore a 3D model of a new car at home.
The company still isn’t quite sure where the technology will go, but it’s partnering with Microsoft to start experimenting. Beginning next year, Volvo says some customers will have a chance to experience new cars on the HoloLens — in one form or another.
“We take a quite practical approach in breaking down longterm visions,” Volvo senior vice president Björn Annwall said. “Our retail experience and how you buy a car, that will change. But we break it down in steps. Revolutionary results by evolutionary means, I think, has worked for us.”
Both companies say this demonstration was just the start, as Microsoft and Volvo will continue working together on a range of technologies, including autonomous vehicles.
The demo was the most recent potential application Microsoft has showed off for HoloLens, the company’s futuristic augmented reality headset that was unveiled in January but is just now starting to feel more real. The company says NASA scientists are already using it to steer rovers on Mars and pretty soon students at Case Western Reserve University will get a chance to try it out in the classroom.
But otherwise, the HoloLens remains a closely guarded product that only makes public appearances in highly controlled environments. Even during my demo today, I wasn’t allowed to take any photos of the device myself. Instead, Microsoft offered to let me stand next to one inside a glass case while a photographer captured the moment in all its awkward glory.
Developer versions of the headset will be released in the first quarter of 2016 with a hefty $3,000 price tag. Microsoft senior director Scott Erickson says there won’t be any non-disclosure agreements at that point, so it will be the first time we’re able to see how the device actually holds up under real-world conditions.
The cost will certainly be enough to scare most casual consumers away, but Erickson reminded me it’s only a developers’ edition right now. He also pointed out that Microsoft had to design all the sensors and create entirely new technology to enable something like this.
“So, for now, the $3,000 developer edition is really in line with the technology inside,” he said. “Of course, we will take a look at that over time and see what that means for the eventual consumer product.”
Thursday’s demo was my first time trying out the HoloLens — and it certainly lived up to the hype. Like most reviews have noted, the relatively small field of view was really the only major issue I saw.
The demonstration room was staged to look like a cross between a design shop and a showroom.
At the first table I saw the basic outline of the Volvo S90 sedan. My demonstration guide talked about the car’s features, and pointed to things like the way the front wheels were moved forward and the curves in the body were designed to mimic a boat.
Next, that small model transformed into a larger model where I had a chance to see “under the skin of the car.” Microsoft said this was at the top of Volvo’s priority list, as the manufacturer wanted to be able to use HoloLens to really explain how the car works.
Later, I was presented with an animated scene that showed the car driving down a road. The guide explained safety features while the scenario played out in front of me. In one, the S90 slammed on the breaks because it sensed a stopped vehicle ahead. In another, the car’s dashboard warned a driver of an upcoming patch of ice.
Finally, I sat down on a couch and designed my own car on the coffee table in front of me. After I selected my options, I was able to see a full size hologram of the car. With a final tap of my finger the car’s motor revved up and the demo was over.
Volvo said this kind of experience wasn’t designed to replace the feeling of sitting in a car before you buy it. Instead, the HoloLens could be used in the dealership along with physical showroom cars. That way you could sit inside and touch the car, but also see what it looks like with the exact paint color and trim you’re looking for.
“We haven’t settled in on exactly what concept we’ll use and when we will use it, so we’re still in the exploratory phase,” Annwall said. “That said, we will have this in front of customers next year. We are exploring with our business partner, the dealers and the customers on which of those use cases makes most sense.”