This BMW augmented-reality app turns any space into a car showroom

BMW just revealed a new app that could change the way we choose, and even buy, cars. Developed in collaboration with Accenture, the new app uses augmented-reality tech to turn pretty much any space into a personal car showroom. And although BMW announced the software over at this year’s CES event in Las Vegas, I got to demo the app back in London.

This BMW augmented-reality app turns any space into a car showroom

The app is a joint partnership between BMW and Accenture, but it’s entirely based on Project Tango, Google’s new standard for augmented-reality (AR) devices. Project Tango-certified devices can scan and learn environments, and use equipment such as fisheye lenses to better understand 3D motion, and their own place in the environment. There aren’t many Tango devices out right now, but Google – as well as Accenture – is hoping Tango will become just as important as GPS.

The app only works with the BMW i series range so far, but that’s because it’s still in a testing and early rollout phase. According to Matteo Aliberti, augmented commerce lead at  Accenture Interactive, it’s being given to test dealerships today, but it shouldn’t be long before it’s on Google Play. In a few months, we should also see the rest of the BMW range available to look at and customise on the app.

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What’s it like to use?

I tried a prototype version of the technology on a Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, and on the whole the experience was pretty good. After firing up the app and selecting either a BMW i8 or a BMW i3, all I had to do was click on where I wanted the car. Once the car has been virtually delivered, it’s possible to look around it, open doors, step in it and even change the wheels and interior trims. Once you’re happy with your creation, the app will lets you save a photo of the car to your camera roll. 

However, there were a few things to mention. First, Project Tango works by first learning the environment you want to use, but on the devices I used this has already been done. Therefore I can’t talk about how easy or hard it is to get the app set up.

Second, the app was quite laggy – even on a Project Tango certified phone. Although the models themselves looked great, the real-life background behind the cars was often juddery. However, I was told that this is due to the unfinished nature of the app in its current form, and it should be gone by the time it’s up on the Google Play store. The app is also quite large, at around 500MB right now, but Accenture will begin a process of optimisation that should see that reduced, without reducing quality.bmw_tango_-_3

AR for cars

While the app represents great publicity for BMW, it also hints at some very interesting trends in the automotive industry. BMW isn’t the first carmaker to embrace technology to sell cars: Audi showed me an Oculus Rift-based demo last year, and Volvo also began to work with the Microsoft HoloLens. It’s clear that car companies are looking for ways for potential buyers to experience their “ideal” cars, without needing huge showrooms. But BMW is the first to use an AR app on a mobile device, and it’s that part that both the German carmaker and Accenture are most excited about.

We decided to completely focus on augmented reality,” says Aliberti. “With virtual reality, you need to have a large Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, you need to have a big powerful computer, you need to have somebody helping you because it’s a bit tricky do on your own. With [Tango], there’s no need for instructions or a supercomputer. You just download the app and it’s off you go essentially.”

No iOS

While Accenture does think the app can be used for customers as well as dealerships, because it uses Google’s Project Tango it’s currently only available on the Google Play store. That means a large amount of potential customers are missing out right now, but for Aliberti and Accenture, the Project Tango method is currently the best overall solution.

“There are ways to give iOS the ability to have the same kind of understanding of the environment, but in order to do that you have to plug additional sensors to the iOS devices,” admits Aliberti. “We’re completely agnostic, and at the moment we’re doing this with Google because it’s very immediate and it works beautifully, and everything is already included in the device.”

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Beyond cars: The future of ecommerce

Although BMW and Volvo want AR to hopefully sell cars, Aliberti thinks the technology will be used for pretty much all our purchases in the future. “We’re looking at taking to this to other industries,” he adds. “This is the future of ecommerce.” And he’s probably right.

If both Apple and Google are able to deliver new standards of AR, there’s no reason why apps such as eBay and Amazon can’t have an AR feature that can show products in customers’ homes. Purchasing online is usually cheaper, and the only drawback is the inability to see the project in the flesh. In some ways, AR solves that problem completely.

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