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BMW Test Drives New AR Experience

BMW is known for being the “ultimate driving machine,” and its latest innovation is shifting the customer experience into high gear. The luxury car manufacturer is piloting a 3-D augmented reality (AR) experience that allows customers to visualize and explore BMW’s i3 or i8 models through a mobile app.

“It’s honestly a seamless journey between the physical and digital,” says Andrea Castronovo, BMW Group’s VP of sales strategy and future retail.

For BMW, buying a car is an emotional experience. And the earlier customers develop positive sentiment towards the company’s vehicles, Castronovo explains, the more likely they are to experience higher levels of customer satisfaction during the sales process.

“In the beginning, our products are emotional products and the experience counts a lot,” he says.

However, developing an emotional connection early on in the customer journey can be difficult, especially when customers aren’t in a dealership and don’t have access to a physical BMW vehicle. So, the company tries to increase customers’ satisfaction levels through content-filled and emotionally driven interactions, like the AR experience achieved through the BMW i Visualizer app.

Designed and developed with consulting and technology services company Accenture, the app combines 3-D models and picture data with Google’s smartphone AR technology Tango to create real-size, interactive visualizations of the cars. BMW claims to be the first automotive brand to use Tango to create these immersive experiences, and Matteo Aliberti, global lead of augmented commerce for Accenture Interactive, says that it took three to four months to take the idea from concept to development.

Here’s how the AR experience works: Starting later this month, customers can download the app to their smartphone and then hold their device in front of them to visualize the vehicle in the context of their environment. Through the app, they can then explore the interior and exterior of the car, interact with its features (like the car’s lights or trunk), and customize its color and wheel rims with the tap of the screen.

“Whenever the car is not available, augmented reality can be the next step,” Castronovo says.

While the plan is to give customers the freedom to access BMW’s vehicles anytime, anywhere, the company is currently testing the AR experience in a “double-digit” number of international sales outlets only, according to an official press release. “Product geniuses” (or car educators) at these select locations can show prospective customers the AR experience through Tango-enabled mobile devices. Once the customers are ready to discuss sales options, they’re handed off to a sales agent.

BMW plans to make the app available to customers via the Google Play store later this month. It then intends to launch a second version of the app this summer that will allow customers to send their customized vehicle designs to dealers or friends via email, social media, or QR code.

The beta phase of the pilot program officially launched in select markets in January. And while Castronovo declined to share hard performance metrics, he says that customers have been “enchanted” with the app experience and that they understand how it works right away. He expects this experience will help BMW establish emotional connections with prospective customers early on, which will help create more positive sales experiences later down the line.

He also says that the response from product geniuses and BMW presidents in different countries has been “overwhelmingly positive.” In fact, he says that there has been a strong interest in Belgium for the country’s Motor Show in Brussels, where BMW does 25% to 30% of its annual Belgium sales. Furthermore, he says that the Visualizer experience reinforces BMW’s image as an innovative brand.

“We strongly believe that partnering with new technology reinforces the message of our brand,” he says, “which is innovation and being close with the customer.”

The pilot program does not have an end date at this time. Castronovo says the program could be extended and expanded to include other BMW products. However, the company will need to overcome a few challenges, mainly the availability of Tango technology. Currently, Tango is only available via two devices: The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro and the Asus ZenFone AR. However, Aliberti expects there to be “an incredible uptake” of Tango and competitive technologies in the next few years, citing Apple’s 2015 acquisition of German AR company Metaio as an indication.

“This is the next big revolution of e-commerce,” he says.

However, an even bigger challenge might be Castronovo’s level of satisfaction with BMW’s speed of innovation, which he says can always be faster and better.

“You’re never satisfied about your performance….Our performance was very good. We came out first,” he says. “The next race we need to be faster because otherwise someone else will catch up.”

Photo Credit: BMW Group

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