Shopping on a screen

Here’s why you need to know about this brand that’s not a car brand

When you’re in a showroom, the best way to experience a new car is to sit in it, touch different parts, and imagine going on a road trip. But in this COVID era being conscious about hygiene and social distancing has changed the way we used to do a lot of things. Including buying a car. Going to a local showroom then feels like an unnecessary risk.

But that shouldn’t stop anyone from buying a car. Since the past year, car makers have been working on ways to bring the showroom experience to buyers’ homes where they can experience the car from the comfort and safety of their couch. And the company largely involved in this digital push is Eccentric Engine.

What does Eccentric Engine do?

This Mumbai-based company is behind the One 3D platform, which is enabling car makers to showcase their models in glorious 3D right on their websites. Unlike before where the 3D car models reminded you of PlayStation 1 games, today these cars look real and are a lot more detailed and nuanced. Real-time lighting, shadow effects and textures that you can almost feel make it a far more immersive experience.

“We initially had a lot of challenges, since we wanted to create vehicle models that looked authentic and not like a toy car, and more importantly load quickly so the buyer doesn’t wait forever,” reveals Varun Shah, CEO, Eccentric Engine. “We eventually managed to get the entire vehicle to render in 3D – not just the exteriors, but also the interiors with all the textures, including leather,” he adds.

The One 3D platform offers various touch points to experience a car. Take for instance the paint scheme. Gone are the days when you had to see the listed palettes and imagine how they would look on the car. Now, you can now ‘see’ the car in the desired colour scheme and feel them coming to life as lights reflect from different angles.

Some companies also let you change the backgrounds to see how the colour scheme looks in different environments. Earlier, seeing the car in different places meant taking it for a test drive, and then begging the sales exec to let you stray off the usual routes.

Similarly, you can see the interiors based on the variant you choose – a base variant might not look the same as the top-end. You can virtually sit inside, add/remove features, and see the interiors (and price tag) changing. In essence, you get a live representation of what you would normally read in a brochure.

One might argue that all this is still digital, and not the real thing. But that’s like saying Gran Turismo or Forza Horizon are not the same as driving real cars. Yes they may not be, but it is still the closest you can come to driving (and crashing!) a Pagani Huayra without selling your soul to pay the bills, and even then we’re not sure if it would cover the workshop fees. In times like these, this is the closest you can come to experiencing a car you plan to buy from the safety of your home.

Where can I see the 3D cars?

It all started when Eccentric Engine tied up with TATA Motors in 2016 to convert its cars into 3D. “TATA calls its 3D feature the ‘Imaginator’, which is hosted on the One 3D platform,” reveals Shah. “The platform has evolved a lot, and now has many more cool functionalities.” Today, all of TATA’s cars can be experienced in 3D, including the latest Safari.

Since then, other car makers have come onboard, including Maruti Suzuki, Nissan, MG Motors, Toyota, and the latest being Citroën for its C5 Aircross SUV

How can I experience it?

The virtual showrooms sit on the car makers’ websites, and can be accessed via a phone, tablet or a computer. The platform uses internet connectivity and your device’s resources to render the 3D car model. What sets the One 3D platform apart is the ability to compress these large 3D files to under 15MB, which helps load them faster, and more importantly on almost any device. 

“If you own an Android device bought in the last 3-4 years that costs less than ₹10,000, it will be able to render the 3D models,” says Shah. “It also doesn't matter where you are, even if you’re in a tier-III city and have internet connectivity, you can see the 3D content.” 

Besides buyers, car makers and dealers too are taking advantage of this 3D platform. Over 20,000 sales executives are now using the 3D platform to showcase the cars when interacting with buyers. But the most interesting use of this platform so far has been by MG Motor India. 

The car maker launched its first-ever car-less showroom in Bengaluru back in 2019. Called the ‘Digital Studio’, it is filled with interactive screens powered by the One 3D platform for buyers to experience cars like the Hector, and all its features.

Are people really into digital showrooms?

You might think that tech geeks like us are the only ones excited about interactive virtual car showrooms. And that ‘normal’ people would prefer seeing the car in the flesh. But some of the trends seen in the past year paint a different picture. 

As per a study by Eccentric Engine, 7.6 million Indians explored cars online on their phones and computers in 2020. Of these 91% booked the same model they saw online, with 41% sticking to the same variant. What’s interesting is that tier-III cities accounted for 9% of the total time spent on the One 3D platform, which is 6.5x growth between 2018-2020. 

It comes as no surprise that Eccentric Engine aims to go beyond four- wheelers in its digital push. “We will very soon move to other categories like two-wheelers, commercial vehicles, three-wheelers, because why not,” reveals Shah. “We even worked with a tyre manufacturer during the lockdown, and developed 3D versions of their entire SKUs that were accessible to everyone from dealers to buyers.”

Going forward, the company is planning to introduce an assistive sales experience. It envisages a sales executive and buyer communicating on the platform in real-time to replicate what you normally see at a showroom. The company is also moving towards a predictive platform, where using machine learning, the sales execs can predict and better serve customers. 

The digital battleground

The COVID pandemic has pushed car makers to think of innovative solutions to stay relevant. The digital battleground has seen companies take the e-commerce route and even try out technologies like AR and VR.

Audi India is leveraging AR to give buyers a feel of their cars while lounging at home. Head over to the company’s website and choose a model to get a QR code. When scanned, a 3D representation of the car will be seen on your hand-held device. The company even goes a step further by letting you book the car online on its ‘Audi Shop’.

Fellow luxury car maker Mercedes- Benz India too announced a big change to its retail model by going direct-to-consumer. Now, Mercedes owns the entire stock, and sells them directly to consumers through their showrooms or online sales portal. Unlike before, the dealers won’t have to hold any inventory, and instead will only facilitate the sales, delivery, and servicing. It’s the end of haggling with dealers to give you the best price. 

Kia too is taking the digital route with its recent launch of ‘Kia Digi- Connect’, a video-based live sales consultation solution. The app lets sales execs talk to buyers via video, take them on a tour of the car, share online brochures, price lists, and more.

Back in 2019, Kia had launched ‘Beat360’ in Gurugram, which is a digital experiential centre to get buyers to experience the company’s offerings using technology. There are three experiential zones, including the Surround Media Zone demonstrating the audio and video capabilities, Beat360 Cafe where customers can configure their cars in 3D, and Mixed Reality Zone where customers can experience the car in augmented and virtual reality.

Honda Cars India too announced the launch of its virtual showroom in the midst of the pandemic. One can head to the website to experience the entire range of cars in 360 degrees. You can see the exteriors and interiors from all possible angles, and also click on the hotspots to know more about specific features.

There seems to be genuine attempts by car makers to push for a relevant digital presence. Whatever the chosen route, in the end it’s the consumers that are benefiting the most. Configuring (and ordering) your next set of shiny wheels in your PJs at 2AM just got real!