When Sandeep Kaul, a Delhi-based marketing professional, walked into a Kia BEAT 360 showroom in Gurugram, surprisingly, instead of keys, Kaul was handed over mixed-reality smartglasses.

The showroom’s mixed-reality zone allows users to experience a variety of Kia products in a virtual world. Opened in October 2019, the BEAT 360 centre is the company’s first digital store outside South Korea, and among the first in the new wave of digital car showrooms coming up across India.

Sharatchandra Aithal, field engineer, Unity Technologies, said while automobile companies have been using augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in their production pipeline for a while, the use of these technologies to impress customers is finding favour among car companies.

Unity, known for its game development engine, has been offering its platform for creating AR and VR applications, much like the ones automakers use. “When it comes to marketing, having a catalogue of AR and VR is still very relevant as it assists in the presentation of cars. So, if a showroom has a car model in just one colour, by using AR they can show the same car in multiple colours," he added.

While getting behind the wheels for a test drive is an unmatchable experience, with increasing feature sets on modern vehicles, auto companies are turning to 3D visualization, augmented, mixed and virtual reality technologies to offer more insightful experiences to customers visiting their showrooms.

In October, UK-based MG Motor, too, opened its first digital showroom in Bengaluru. Unlike Kia, the showroom does not have cars on display. Instead, it has large interactive screens where customers can experience the MG Hector and all its features before taking a test drive. The screen shows a 3D view of the car, capturing its attributes from multiple angles. Buyers can see colour options, check out various security features, and learn about the car’s AI-enabled iSmart technology. MG is also using augmented reality on an iPad to project a virtual three dimensional image of the car in the digital store.

“With the growing importance of omni-channel brand presence, we believe that such showrooms represent the next-generation network footprint in the automotive business," said Rajeev Chaba, president and managing director, MG Motor India. “With increased costs of operating a conventional car showroom, including aspects such as space, rentals and infrastructure, the new business model helps unlock operational efficiencies and offers more convenience as customer preferences move towards digital."

Mahindra Electric, a subsidiary of Mahindra Group, is also offering a virtual reality-based driving experience at select dealerships. It puts buyers in a virtual world, simulating the interior of the company’s connected electric car, the e2oPlus, in the drive mode. During the VR drive, users learn about the car’s features and with the VR headset on, users can experience the interiors of the car. While Kia, Mahindra and MG are examples of mainstream automobile makers using future-facing technologies, luxury brands aren’t far behind either. German carmaker Audi is using AR and VR to allow buyers to tweak the look and feel of its cars.

At its new showroom in Gurugram, opened in August, Audi India is offering a virtual view of its cars with an option to customise performance elements, exteriors and interiors. “A luxury car buyer is emotionally invested in the car he/she is buying. Customers today are looking to own cars that are smart and highly customised. They want to experience everything at the touch of their fingertips without having to visit the dealership," said Balbir Singh Dhillon, head, Audi India.

Rudratej Singh, president and CEO of BMW Group India, believes, VR and AR can simulate the numerous capabilities and features of products that would otherwise be difficult to simulate in a dealership environment. Customers enjoy it also because it is a new experience for them, at least for now. The change in experience isn’t limited to the use of emerging technologies alone. Kia Motors is using Internet of Things to improve its after-sales service. It will notify customers on the Kia Link app if their cars are due for service and will let them book an appointment through the app. Its service centres will use radio frequency identification scanners to identify cars and process them without wasting time.