Car showrooms are rarely the most inviting of shopping environments. Pushy salespeople in slightly-shiny suits, the occasional pot plant, and non-descript muzak (or, if you’re very unlucky, the strains of James Blunt’s 'Back to Bedlam') wafting around in the background. But a new project from Audi looks set to change all that. Audi City is an interactive showroom in London’s Piccadilly Circus that allows visitors to design and play with virtual vehicles with the flick of a hand. The project has been several years in development and lets people put together a car (there are hundreds of millions of possible configurations) before viewing it in real-scale.
Audi have effectively created a virtual showroom in a physical environment, recognising that while people are increasingly likely to shop online, they still enjoy congregating in the real world and talking face-to-face with real people. With headlines decrying the ‘death of the high street’, initiatives like Audi City may well be the kiss of life that town centres sorely need. By re-casting store clerks as consultants and advisors rather than salespeople and re-imagining shops as play-rooms where potential customers can explore a product without necessarily purchasing it on-the-spot, such projects mean that the high street of the future may occupy a very different role.
Beijing is set to see the arrival of Audi City 2 by the end of 2012, and by 2015 Audi hope to have established 20 virtual showrooms around the world. And Audi isn’t the only one getting in on the act – now that the technology is here, it’s likely that other brands will get in on the act in the coming year.
To see Audi CIty for yourself, check out the official case film here
and the microsite here
Razorfish was one of many organisations involved in the development of Audi City. The agency were largely responsible for the creative and software development on one part of the solution: the multitouch table experience. We caught up with Tom Acland, Chief Technology Officer to find out what Audi City means for the future of shopping and why ad agencies should care.
LBB> What was the reasoning behind creating Audi City?
TA> We think that Audi has set a benchmark for what retail will be like in the future.
There are a number of things going on – it’s about getting the brand into high-traffic locations in downtown areas rather than edge of town show rooms. It allows Audi to show a huge range of products – normally the more products you have the more real estate you need, which gets expensive when your product is something big like a car. This approach allows consumers to experience the product as close to reality as possible, and in some cases even better. This is a recurring theme in a lot of industries. In fashion, for example, lead times on new collections are coming down and the portfolio of products changes a lot, which puts pressure on the retail space. We will see more of this happening over the coming 18 months.
We refer to it as ‘retail theatre’ – making the experience more theatrical and immersive. It gives the high street a new role, changing the definition of what the high street is. People coming into stores like this are not necessarily going to buy straight away, they’re coming to consult and learn.
LBB> Why is this shift happening now?
TA> It’s only really happening now because the cost of doing this kind of thing is coming down. It will happen first in areas where the sales process is consultative and product value is high. If you’re buying a car or a mobile contract, it has a high lifetime value to the brand. It’s different to a packet of soup.
LBB> How will this retail revolution affect ad agencies?
TA> This shift affects all elements of advertising agencies. There are a set of rules for how brands, agencies and retailers work together, but they are going to have to change. If you look at how a big retailer decides what lines to stock, they make that decision based on the media buying decision. What’s happening now is that people will run a search on an e-commerce site and that’s how they will decide what to buy – it’s less closely related to the media buy. They might come into a store to help them make a decision but they won’t necessarily purchase the item in-store. The whole model is changing.
LBB> What’s interesting is that while people are increasingly moving online to do their shopping, it doesn’t mean that they no longer need that physical experience or contact with real humans.
TA> The human element of Audi City is really important. It’s two-sided. One aspect is that ability for people to share and the other is the issue of accessibility. Certain aspects of digital shopping puts the user in control. They don’t want someone walking up saying ‘buy, buy, buy’, but they might need someone to help them.
What Audi City does is change the role of sales people. In a traditional car showroom, there will be someone sitting behind a desk, watching you. This approach is much less daunting and more accessible. And what’s interesting is that this ‘consultative’ selling process and the multi-touch table can actually help to reduce the amount of time it takes to close a sale. We think that what’s happening is that consumers prefer to feel more in control, and there’s a subjective transparency there for the customer.
LBB> Razorfish was heavily involved with the user experience side of this project – what were you trying to achieve?
TA> A project like this takes a lot of people, and we certainly didn't build everything - we were involved with very specific areas. The big challenge Audi faced was to make the technology seem non-existent. The last thing you want is for people to start thinking about how this works. Look at the way a normal sales process works when there’s technology involved – quite often you’re separated from the advisor by a screen, they’ve got a keyboard and mouse and it’s quite clear who’s doing the steering. We wanted a natural user interface which you can interact with in a way that is closer to how you interact with objects in the real world.
The reason why this is possible is because computers are so much cheaper now. In the past it was never about what the user wanted, all the processing power was devoted to making things as easy as possible for the computer. So you had to enter complicated commands to get a computer to do anything. Now you can just interact with simple gestures. As computer power got cheaper, there was more power available to make them easier to use.
LBB> There’s something very sci-fi about Audi City...
TA> We’ve been working on this for a couple of years now. Five years ago you saw these sorts of things in films like 'Minority Report' and now they’re real. Actually John Underkoffler, a professor at MIT developed a whole theory to support the technology in the film 'Minority Report'. These ideas are not randomly invented by strange creatives, there are people thinking academically about how people can interact with technology using gestures. UnderKoffler came up with a theory, which could be visualised very easily in Hollywood films, but it’s only now that the technology to realise the theory is cheap and accessible enough.
LBB> Audi City is set to roll out globally over the next few years. What developments are in the pipeline?
TA> Audi has hinted that a key role for Audi City is about selling mobility services. It’s a little bit sci-fi but car manfuctures are going to be selling the ability to get from A to B rather than selling a physical car that you park outside your house. It won’t happen straight away, but looking forward to the near future we are going to see more of this. Thinking about what the next level will be for Audi City, well, at the moment people can build a virtual car but next they’ll want to be able to drive it.