Some days ago I received a phone call from Del Sehmar at Jaguar Land Rover. There was a press conference taking place in London soon and he wanted to know if I could make it. Del, currently senior manager, product PR, at JLR’s head office in Gaydon near London, has been an acquaintance for some years now and always keeps me informed of anything cool and interesting at the auto manufacturer.
Now this might sound like a shill for a corporate who is secretly paying me off on the side, but I assure you it is not. Besides, why would they? I don’t drive. I have never driven a car. In fact, I have never even owned a driver’s licence in my entire life. There isn’t a single person in the entire world who would buy a car on my recommendation. And good for them. (Though if you insist on my view: Buy your cars like you should buy your watches—moderately priced and Japanese.)
Therefore, when Del calls me up I know that there is something besides the usual—a new car, a new showroom, a new chairman (cough cough)—involved. In the past, this has meant interesting new technology inside the car, artificial intelligence projects, windscreen overlay displays, highly experimental threat-detection concepts, heritage vehicles and so on. Cool things that appeal to my generally nerdy side. Cool things that I may find thought-provoking.
“Don’t tell anybody yet,” Del told me. “But we’re unveiling Jaguar’s first electric car concept.”
“Ok…” I said, my eyebrows slowly fusing into one. Very exciting indeed, but surely there had to be more.
“But there is more,” Del said.
So a few evenings later, I went to attend the unveiling of the Jaguar i-Pace electric SUV at the offices of a company called Imagination, a short walk away from the British Museum in London.
The premises had been given a typically elegant and understated Jaguar makeover. Three superb Jaguars were placed outside, bathed in spotlights. All shiny car and seductive shadow.
After helping me check-in and find a socket to charge my dying phone from, Del pulled me aside. Look around, he said. I did. There was no sign of the new car. The car, he told me, was going to be unveiled at the Los Angeles Motor Show.
“But you’re going to experience it through a live virtual reality broadcast. Through an HTC Vive headset,” Del explained.
“Oh how exciting!” I said, using the stock expression all journalists use when they are trying seem as enthusiastic as the PR professional in front of them. It is an essential part of every modern journalist’s armoury. If you can’t fake it you often find it very difficult to make it.
See, the problem is that I am an ’80s child. Ever since I was old enough to watch technology programmes on television—four and a half—I have been promised all kinds of things by the modern consumer electronics and communications industry. All kinds of things.
The paperless office. Bionic clothing. Machines that can cook food at the press of a button. Roads that generate electricity just by cars driving over them. Quality education at home over the TV. Affordable housing on the moon.
And what did we actually get? The Internet and social media and the joy of waking up in the morning to realize that people in an entirely different time zone spent the entire night abusing you because you made an autocorrect blunder and tweeted: “Want to have a great night with the whole family? Just pull up an old Tamil movie! You can always thrust in MGR to give you a fantastic time.”
Few of those childhood technology promises have disappointed more than virtual reality. For years and years we were told that virtual reality was just around the corner. In just a few more years, as soon as these researchers finished their work, we would be able to slip on a headset, adorn a high-tech glove of some kind and VR away into magical places. All from the comfort of our living rooms. And for years absolutely nothing happened.
Until very recently, that is, when VR has suddenly become sexy again. So I immediately bought one of those Google Cardboard headsets things. And used it a grand total of twice. Once for my own lack of enjoyment. And once to prove to the missus that I would definitely use it more than once, and that it wasn't a waste of money.
So you can imagine my inner scepticism as I sat through a few brief presentations by Jaguar engineers and managers before being hooked up into the VR live press event. This was not, I must add, the first press event I have been to that involved a VR headset. But that previous time, organized by a Swiss watch brand, only involved a brief fly-over video of the Jura mountains, followed by a few glimpses into a mechanism of the watch. Enjoyable, but not entirely substantial.
The Jaguar i-Pace launch, however, utterly blew me away. Not only was it enjoyable and informative, but also actually useful. The presentation, which lasted twenty minutes or so, combined product engineering clips, a live Q&A session with Jaguar’s director of design, Ian Callum, technical walkthroughs and, most impressive of all, a VR representation of the interiors of the car.
It was thrilling to sit on a chair inside an office building in central London and look around the interiors of a Jaguar car parked by the seaside in the US. Did it look a really high-end video game? Not at all. And that is the thing. More than once I felt like reaching across and running my fingers over the fabric and materials of the car’s interior.
VR experiences can often be solitary. Not this time. Throughout the presentation you could see little coloured outlines of the other 65 “heads” attending the event. Occasionally, the group in LA, just across the room in the VR space, waved at us. And we waved back at them. But then the system also allowed each attendee to manipulate the images and videos in front of them. I used a little baton in my hand to rotate the car, zoom into the drive train assembly and so on.
Oh and the i-Pace looks fantastic. The cars go into production next year and we should see them on the roads by 2018. Concept-heavy product presentations can often overshadow the product itself. Either by being so exciting that it distracts you from the product in question. Or by being so boring that you just... stop... caring.
Del and his colleagues at Jaguar set the right balance in my opinion. Any more VR and it would have veered into oversell. And any less commitment to the concept and it would have looked like a bolted-on gimmick.
Instead, I went away from the event with a very favourable view of both the substance of the VR event—the i-Pace itself—and the manner of the interaction. If this is how virtual reality is going to look like in my living room then, by all means, sign me up. I am sold.
Reiterating that I say this without any pressure from Jaguar, I must say that I bloody loved the i-Pace. It might just persuade me to finally get that driving licence after all.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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