Taking the Wheel: How ZeroLight assumed command of retail VR
Few companies know building virtual cars better than ZeroLight.
Founded in 2012, the UK studio has proved itself as a master of crafting automotive visualization models that trump even the finest video game vehicles, especially when it comes to detail.
And today, that work has lead the team to serving the retail space, where they've garnered a great many lessons about serving the public through virtual reality headsets; lessons the outfit is only too happy to share.
But how does a specialist in industry-focused visualization find itself providing for the ordinary consumer?
In the same approximate timeframe that ZeroLight has been carefully rendering gleaming vehicles, the new generation of VR has emerged, in part developing from Palmer Luckey's workbench. And as VR has moved from hobbyist curiosity to a paradigm shifting tech sensation, it has presented an opportunity to car manufacturers that solves an age-old problem in retail.
Simply put, cars are rather large. There's only so many you can fit in a single showroom, which means particular problems for companies like Audi, which sells a vast range of vehicles in a near-endless array of customizable configurations. Consider all the combinations of paintwork, trim and rims, and one thing is clear; no showroom in the world has enough space. Which is where VR steps in. Quite simply, it allows retailers to offer an area where consumers can view and explore myriad variations of a car they are considering buying, without the need for hundreds of square yards of floor space.
Indeed, it's something we've considered here on the Vision blog before, when RE'FLEKT shared their distinct locomotion solution, rectangular gain.
ZeroLight – which has worked with RE'FLEKT previously – has concerned itself with a slightly different challenge; the task of delivering high quality models in VR, that meet the demands of retailers trying to seduce potential consumers.
"What we have to do at ZeroLight is create the best possible simulation for the consumer," confirms the studio's Technical Director Christopher O'Connor. "That means trying to hit realistic-quality graphics in real-time. There's two key challenges there. One is getting that graphics quality up to a level that is comparable to the real world, so that people can relate to what they see. Secondly, we need to make that user experience as nice as possible, without sacrificing that visual quality."
The test for ZeroLight there is certainly substantial. The likes of juddering and framerate problems are utterly unacceptable in the retail space, and an entirely smooth, streamlined experience delivering what ZeroLight calls 'visualization-quality models' is essential.
Fortunately, the solutions there are relatively simple – in theory at least – and applicable to plenty of cases beyond the VR showroom. Importantly, O'Connor recommends developers consider a rule that has applied to creativity since long before computing; work with limitations, and not against them.
"There will always be hardware limitations, and they are something you can only work with," O'Connor offers. "In the Oculus version of this Audi experience, it's seated, because the technology demands that. So the customer is sat in a chair, and we use teleporting to let the user move around the car.
"The Vive experience, meanwhile, lets the user walk around the car, and get on their hands and knees and really explore the car with a freedom. That experience is more flexible, but you have to consider the space available in the car showroom. So we implemented a teleportation system in that case. It's no good forcing your experience to work against the technology or hardware you are using."
More contemporary golden rules are also important to keep in the front of your mind when serving the retail environment, O'Connor proposes, before hammering home a fundamental law of VR production.
"You have to think very carefully, and you have to let the user be in control," he states. "You can't just suddenly teleport the user somewhere. They have to be the one selecting where they want to be. That's how you avoid the customer getting that feeling of disorientation and not knowing where they are. And it's more important than ever when your user has probably never even held an Xbox controller before; let alone tried VR."
There O'Connor highlights perhaps the most important issue in taking virtual worlds to the bricks and mortar of the shop floor. No where else is there an audience so diverse, with so many of them entirely removed from the world of tech conference demos and VR gaming. And at the same time, nowhere is expectation of what VR can deliver higher, or perhaps more misguided.
Fortunately, again the solution to that particular challenge is one that is neither wildly technical nor bewilderingly abstract. You have test with the right audience, and iterate accordingly.
"As soon as you have an idea, think about quickly creating a prototype, and put it out there," O'Connor says. "Find people that wouldn't usually use VR, or have never had any experience of games. They are the people you should get to test your prototype, and you should ask them how they feel about the experience. Be prepared for a brilliant idea not to work in reality. We've had to go through that. It's that thing of constantly iterating to get the best solution. Because for consumers, nothing is more important than them enjoying the experience and finding it comfortable."
It turns out, then, that developing for the retail crowd isn't always about the ideas your studio treasures and enthuses about most keenly. Sometimes, VR teams have to kill their darlings, especially if personal affections for ideas are impeding your ability to captivate client's customers.
It's something ZeroLight has learned throughout its experience with Audi, and it guides the team's efforts in furthering the potential of VR in the automotive industry. Fortunately, the outfit's work in the showroom also goes to show that the fruits of that labor can be entirely stunning.