Baby, You Can Drive My Virtual Car

New 3-D technology offers another marketing tool for automakers and retailers.

Forget expensive prototypes. Realtime Technology in Royal Oak can project a 3-D image of a concept vehicle and make it appear to hug a hairpin turn or accelerate through a straightaway.

The 3-D illusion shaves considerable time and money off of lengthy design cycles, and opens the door to new marketing opportunities, says Peter Stevenson, CEO of Realtime Technology, or RTT. “An automaker can display a virtual vehicle to a well-heeled crowd of potential buyers months before the product hits the showroom floor,” Stevenson says.

At a recent Concours d’Elegance event at Pebble Beach, Calif., for example, RTT and several partners used video-mapping technology and other virtual tools to transform a foam model of an Infiniti M into a moving, 3-D illusion — complete with spinning tires and changing landscape scenes.

“When you consider the cost of an actual prototype, which can top $1 million, plus all the shipping and setup activities, few OEMs would spend that kind of money to entertain 100 people at a party,” Stevenson says.

But with 3-D imaging, an event like the one at Pebble Beach can be held for less than $100,000 — including venue and hospitality fees. What’s more, an automaker can take orders on the spot, or gauge customer reactions and modify features on the fly.

RTT creates computer-generated images for numerous industries, including aerospace, retail, and consumer electronics. Specific products include watches, cell phones, and athletic shoes.

Apart from offering lifelike visuals, RTT’s 3-D technology helps clients better integrate their design, production, marketing, and sales teams, Stevenson says. “You won’t see the end of concept cars, but our technology allows an OEM to review 15 different headlamp configurations very quickly,” he says.

Founded in Germany in 1999, RTT employs 65 people in Royal Oak, including several with former ties to the auto industry. The company’s clients include General Motors, Chrysler, Opel, Steelcase, Adidas, Sony Ericsson, and Visteon.

For some clients, RTT will create informational or point-of-purchase kiosks to complement a 3-D visual display. Depending on the setup, users can order products online or have their specifications sent to a smart phone. “All the dealer needs to do is download the information, or the OEM could send a brochure of the vehicle with your color and feature selections,” Stevenson says.