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Audi goes all-in on Virtual Reality tech. Image by Audi.

Audi goes all-in on Virtual Reality tech
Dealer training, car configuration and driver assist systems all bolstered by Audi's VR technology.
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What's all this about?

It has been dabbled with since the 1950s, but Virtual Reality (VR), which really started in the 1990s with Sega, is having its second new dawn. Audi will use the technology to train its dealers, upgrade its online configuration process and demonstrate in-car driver assist technologies without ever having to leave the showroom. It's also going to beef up Virtual Cockpit to Virtual Dashboard, although thankfully this latter tech doesn't involve wearing a VR headset to drive.

But is a VR headset involved elsewhere?

Oh yes, and nowhere is this more apparent in an Audi programme that - as customers - you'll sadly never get to experience. You need to sign up to be an Audi salesman, because then you'll be flown to Munich Airport to have a two-day training session that incorporates time in the Audi Virtual Training Cars. These are A4s that are 'mobile virtual reality simulators' and they're stuffed with technology that blends the digital world with reality. At the moment, it's designed to show off one piece of gadgetry alone, Audi's autonomous braking Pre-Sense City safety system.

How does it work?

The real A4 is situated on a 300- by 600-metre flat apron of tarmac at the airport. The driver gets in, slips on a VR headset and is suddenly transported to a digital cityscape, where every other car is a BMW (sorry, joke; they're all Audis, of course). You can then 'drive' in the city by using the major controls of the real car... although this is no open-world environment, you have to strictly stick to a short digital route pre-chosen by Audi, otherwise the physical A4 you're sat blindfold in will crash into some very real and very solid scenery. In essence, you drive along swerving through some cones, swing right round a roundabout and then a clown on a bicycle swerves out in front of you before having a crash to your left. While you're distracted looking at the aftermath of that accident, a digital moron steps out from the right immediately in front of the digital car - and then a clever interface triggers the real car's sensors to anchor on, showing off Pre-Sense City in all its glory without actually endangering pedestrians. It's astonishing to think you're driving a real car around at up to 25mph while you can't see anything. And your brain will rebel when you look down in the virtual world and see your body is invisible - Audi hasn't bothered to simulate a person sat behind the wheel of the car. So while you can feel the steering wheel, gear lever and more, your brain thinks you've vanished. Most odd.

How can I experience VR with Audi, then?

If you head to a showroom soon, the Virtual Experience is like an online car configurator turned up to 11. Pick the specification of car you want (in our demo, it was a bright red R8 V10 plus with a cream leather interior), pop on the VR headset and now you're standing outside your car. You can walk around it, open the doors, get inside, look at the dash trims and more, with all of it rendered in the most incredible quality graphics; way ahead of the likes of Gran Turismo 6. Five to seven million polygons are used on the cars alone, so the level of realism is incredible. It's a way of checking that the lime green Q7 on 17-inch alloys and fitted with a blood red interior and light wood trim is going to look as utterly horrible in reality as it does in your fevered mind. It's brilliant stuff.

What about the driver assist technologies?

Audi's Virtual Engineering Terminal is a 1.4-metre-square table hooked up to a 65-inch monitor. The table is an interactive mat, onto which (very special) model cars and buildings can be placed. That means the dealer can then simulate a scenario that shows off five key bits of electronic safety gear: Matrix LED high beam, LED Laser high beam, Traffic Jam Assist, Park Assist and predictive efficiency Assistant. All are shown using clear visual displays that display the technology working at its absolute best. Audi insists this is not supposed to replace a 'classic test drive' for a buyer, but it should inform customers when they're making a purchase decision.

And the Virtual Dashboard?

It builds on the 12.3-inch TFT instrument cluster of the current Audi line-up to add two more touchscreens on the centre console, in the process doing away with the MMI rotary controller and lots of physical switchgear. The bottom interface has heavy haptic 'buttons' that allow you to select various functions, which are then displayed in greater detail on the higher touchscreen. From there, you can swipe details to the left (or right, for our market, although we were looking at the set-up in left-hand drive format) into the TFT cluster, where they're clearly in your vision. As with Audi cabin architecture, all of this looked and worked gorgeously well, and the rumour is that we'll see it in the next-gen A8 out in 2017, and also the Q6 that will be based on the E-tron concept from which this technology has been lifted.

Matt Robinson - 4 Sep 2016

Audi tech workshop 2016. Image by Audi.Audi tech workshop 2016. Image by Audi.Audi tech workshop 2016. Image by Audi.Audi tech workshop 2016. Image by Audi.Audi tech workshop 2016. Image by Audi.

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