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Cutting-edge VR and AR solutions help Volvo Cars attract new customers

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The automotive industry is changing and so are its marketing campaigns. Traditional car companies now include high tech and campaigns have become high tech themselves, focusing on advanced techniques such as VR and AR. The metaverse is the next step. One of the frontrunners is Volvo Cars with its futuristic and sustainable child company Polestar.

Car companies increasingly focus on VR, gaming and the metaverse. "Polestar launched a car concept together with Balenciaga's 'Afterworld: the age of tomorrow'. We have seen Ferrari launching a model in Fortnite. We know it is a big space. You need to be fresh and new for upcoming generations," says Timmy Ghiurau, Senior Lead XR and Virtual Experiences at Volvo Cars.

The Paris luxury fashion house Balenciaga and the premium Swedish electric car brand are an unlikely couple. Even more surprising is how the two brands teamed up in a video game featuring Balenciaga's fashion collection and a number of Polestar's concept vehicles. What they share is an element of futurism, as Forbes notices. Balenciaga expects to do more in augmented reality video games.

Virtual simulations
In a recent podcast, part of the LikeXR podcast series, Timmy Ghiurau explains how extended reality helped his company grow. XR (extended reality) includes VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality) and MR (mixed reality). "You need to make things interesting for young generations. They don't watch TV, they have ad blockers on YouTube and some commercials never reach them. You need to find new ways to make it interactive and interesting to them."

Ghiurau leads Volvo Cars' initiative around virtual and augmented reality and works with virtual simulations, eye tracking and VR as enablers for self-driving cars and user experience research. "I do come from a creative industry, from music and fashion, and then gaming. Coming to a car company where everything is different, is also super satisfying. The things you are contributing to can offer better user experiences and can impact millions of lives."

Immersive experiences
Volvo started experimenting with extended reality in its early days. "We had a first VR launch for our model XC90," Ghiurau recounts. The model was not going to arrive in showrooms for many months yet, so the team looked for a different solution. "What we wanted to do was try to figure out a way that we could put people inside the car without the car physically being there," says Executive Creative Director Jay Zasa in a behind-the-scenes video.

The solution was to use Google Cardboard, a low-cost virtual reality platform. "It was the first time any brand has done anything like this," Zasa recalls. The result was an immersive experience for the Volvo XC90 in which people could take the car on a journey through a landscape in Vancouver. Shots were taken by an array of eight cameras. "We were shooting on a 60 mile stretch of road to collect all this environment data. We were blending these with computer data of the interior of the car to reach this immersive experience," explains VFX Supervisor Matt Pascuzzi. Google Cardboard proved to be successful as a marketing instrument. Ghiurau: "Especially in the beginning when you launch a car model or car concept you have a limited number of physical cars. So, with the VR experience we could reach more markets and more journalists. It really helped to convey the story and highlight the features that we wanted to highlight. At that time, it was not interactable, but it did the job."

VR testing: too dangerous for real life
VR now offers advanced applications to let customers virtually try out different cars. "I can replace the car while I drive with another car concept, even one that doesn't exist, or I can just change the colors," Ghiurau elaborates. "We also are doing tests for scenarios that are either too dangerous or too rare to test in real life. We can do it in VR."

The team even experimented with people wearing an XR headset inside a car. "For instance, we let a moose or pedestrian walk in front. Both the user and the car sensors think they are real and then we can measure response times." For this project Volvo Cars worked together with Varjo, a technology start-up from Finland that specializes in high-end virtual reality and mixed reality headsets. "Our vision is to create mixed reality where you cannot tell apart any more what is real and what is virtual," a spokesman explains in a video presentation.

The approach seems so real that users forget they are partly in a virtual world. "We had a virtual car appearing next to the real one with the same configuration and you could see your reflection and people were confused because your brain adapts. They had the feeling it was real, but then suddenly it disappeared."

New business models to target young audiences
To reach younger generations the automotive industry increasingly uses high- tech solutions. Marketing though gaming and cutting-edge VR and AR experiences attracts young customers. But as an automotive company you also need different business models to target a young audience. "We are testing new business models and created various companies for shared mobility like 'Care by Volvo'. It makes it more accessible. We are thinking about user experience and design in a way that it becomes more appealing to younger generations."

To create new markets extended reality will continue to play a major role. "We always look for new emerging markets. We are trying to build an ecosystem where we partner up with different companies, for instance housing and mobility. We are working with city planners to actually see how we can play a role in the future. We created smaller companies on the future of mobility." Content marketing is a key element. "We focus on infotainment on self-driving car technology, so that we can use it to collaborate with other brands."

Driving toward the metaverse
Ghiurau who has a background in fashion is often asked why he was attracted to the automotive industry. In a video interview to Design Disciplin he talks about the exciting challenges as the car industry is changing. "It was a traditional industry. I wanted to see how we can include these new emerging tools and the creative mindset to disrupt the industry in a positive way."

The metaverse will be the next step. "Virtual meetings were accelerated by the pandemic. I missed the community, but then they were like 'hey, let's meet in VR'. I was skeptical. But people said, weren't you the guy that preached seven years ago we would meet in the metaverse? Now it was time to practice. It was amazing, the brain adapts so quickly. When you have an avatar close enough, your brain makes correlations and then it becomes really comfortable to collaborate in this environment. (…) We experimented so much with VR, even while on the road. In that sense we do want to be a leader and part of the emerging metaverse."

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