November 29, 2013

News & Features

Automakers go high-tech, 3-D in appeal to online shoppers

New York Times News Service


Morris May of Specular Theory displays an augmented-reality car model on an iPad. (Jonathan Alcorn / The New York Times)

Automakers trying to reach young buyers face a conundrum: How do they sell a car to people who stay away from a showroom?

"They won't come into the stores to educate themselves," says Peter Chung, general manager of Magic Toyota and Scion in Edmonds. "They'll do that online."

In response, automakers such as Cadillac and Toyota are starting to embrace technology that tries to take the showroom to the buyer. Known as augmented reality, it embeds images and videos in a picture on the user's smartphone or tablet. The result is a far more detailed view of the image, often in three dimensions that have added layers of information.

Get the picture
    To see a demonstration of augmented reality, visit and click on the "augmented reality" link.

Views in 3-D, scenes
When Cadillac introduced the ATS last year, it created a campaign that allowed observers to point an iPad at a chalk mural and watch the car drive through scenes such as China's mountainous Guoliang Tunnel and Monaco's Grand Prix circuit. The goal was to grab the attention of potential buyers, especially younger ones who wouldn't normally think of Cadillac when researching new cars.

Later, Cadillac added the technology to its print advertising, pointing readers to download the brand's smartphone application to view a 3-D model of the car. The app allows users to zoom in on the car and turn it 360 degrees by swiping their finger across the screen.

"It's obviously different than going to a dealership, but at least it's enough to engage with the vehicle in an environment where they're comfortable," says Arianna Kughn, Cadillac's social media manager.

Audi has used the technology in its brochures and instruction manuals. Toyota added it to a campaign with computer-generated pop star Hatsune Miku to interest a younger audience in its 2012 Corolla and to increase the number of downloads of the automaker's shopping app.

A touch of Hollywood
Specular Theory, based in Venice Beach, Calif., is using Hollywood production techniques to create renderings that allow users to open the doors of a car that is not really there, peer inside and roam around, or take a test drive, merely by running their fingers over a phone or tablet screen.

Its founder, Morris May, is applying the expertise he developed over 20 years as a graphic designer on movies such as "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones" and "Spider-Man 2" to redefine the way people view cars in the showroom, online and through mobile devices.

"We're changing the way people experience cars," May says, as he used his finger to open the car door of the virtual model displayed on his iPad, revealing the interior of the car, including the dashboard, steering wheel and texture of the seats.

Augmented reality to the uninitiated may seem like a bizarre sci-fi plot device, but it is accessible to anyone with a smartphone or tablet. May turned on his iPad and pointed the camera at a piece of paper that looked like a camouflage print, but the paper concealed the code for what's called a target image. He trained the lens on the image, and a 3-D car appeared on the tablet screen.

Connecting with young buyers

At the root of the interest among automakers is the desire to reach young buyers, who spend a lot of time looking at images of cars online, says Stephen Gandee, vice president for mobile and emerging technologies at, a car-research site. Much of the research in buying a car is done online today, and not just among young buyers. But automakers and dealers want to create a deeper connection.

"[It's] the emotional side of shopping — you can't beat pictures," says Gandee.


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