Why You May Be Using X-Ray Vision the Next Time You Go Car Shopping

High-Tech Display Tools Become Affordable for Dealers, Other Retailers

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All the World Is Your Video Screen
SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Talk about marketing transparency: a display that allows you to "look" through a car's sheet metal into its automotive underbelly.
The lighting system Saturn is considering lets shoppers 'see inside a car.'
The lighting system Saturn is considering lets shoppers 'see inside a car.'

It's just one of many "immersive virtual environments" that put a contemporary twist on the age-old art of playing light tricks -- for example, by making a car appear to move when it is actually stationary. These complex and expensive environments were once usually reserved for trade shows or elaborate traveling promotions. But thanks to a drop in cost and improvements in technology, automotive showrooms and other retailers are increasingly embracing these displays with interactive applications.

Looking beneath the hood
General Motors Corp.'s Saturn Corp., in fact, has before its dealers a proposal to buy for as little as $5,000 to $12,000 devices that give shoppers a Superman-style view of the engine and safety systems inside.

"Light is a very powerful medium," said Brian Bolain, national interactive marketing manager for Toyota's Lexus, which used similar technology in a road tour for its 460 launch, swirling lights over the car to give the impression it was moving through the countryside on a starlit night. "It really opened our eyes to the possibilities," he said.

Another example: To promote its affiliation with America's Cup, BMW produced a display in Valencia, Spain, that gave visitors the Imax-like experience of standing on BMW's boat entry as it raced.

Saturn was introduced to the technology when its agency at the time, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, hired a company called Obscura Digital to help the automaker create a splash at Wired magazine's high-tech showcase NextFest. It followed with a second NextFest demonstration for an environmentally friendly auto: A field of grass was projected on a wall, and it waved as consumers moved around.

Past the paint
The technology Saturn is considering uses a lighting system that projects images of a car's internal components onto the body of the car. If shoppers want a better view of the engine, for example, a press of a button on an interactive screen will cause images of engine parts to appear on the car's hood in such a way that consumers will feel as if they're looking at the car with X-ray vision. The dealer would be able to move models of different cars under the projection system (it's not a one-size-fits-all cars process).

"It really fits into how we like the customer to interact in the showroom," said Chris Bower, manager-retail strategies and customer experience for Saturn. "A side benefit is that it's cool." If dealer groups approve, the lighting systems could be in at least half of Saturn's showrooms by year's end.

David Roman, VP-worldwide marketing communications at Hewlett Packard's Personal Systems Group, used a digital presentation from Obscura to show objects on a wall. Passersby were able to "grab" a light image of a photo and virtually toss it onto the wall across the room. They could also virtually play light images of a drum, violin and keyboard.

Mr. Roman said the light wall was a physical-world manifestation of the company's website, with the added benefit of allowing the audience to interact with a "more natural interface" (that is, it allowed users to move their arms and not be limited to mouse or key strokes). But the most important light he had to shed on the subject was this: If using these displays, make sure they connect with your company's marketing communications.
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