Nice Shoes’ creative director Ninaad Kulkarni and executive creative director Harv Glazer take LBB behind the scenes of the Creative Studio’s Immersive Virtual showroom for Audi, providing customers a vivid and realistic experience in a time when in-person showrooms were inaccessible.
It’s not an easy task taking the physical reality of a showroom and creating an interactive virtual web experience that matches the detail and exploration you’d expect from a tangible visit. But that’s exactly what Nice Shoes
did, without any compromises.
The production company used cutting-edge real-time web rendering solutions to reimagine the showroom experience for the launch of Audi’s new eTron vehicle. After QR codes were sent to Audi VIPs to drum up attention - and crucially, boost customer conversion rates - the experience was rolled out across Canada earlier this year, where prospective customers could visit the site and enter the VR showroom via their desktop or smartphone.
Nice Shoes even made it possible for users to place the eTron using AR on any street, augment it in their driveways/garages, or even inside their homes relatively scaled to fit on smaller surfaces such as tables or floors for a truly immersive experience.
Creative director Ninaad Kulkarni and executive creative director Harv Glazer walked LBB through the entire process, including a secret hidden surprise for users zooming in on the vehicle, and how the company was able to replicate hyper-real lighting and colouring for the experience.
LBB>How did the project originally come about? Was the idea to create a hyper-realistic 360 AR virtual showroom there from the start?
Ninaad Kulkarni>Audi originally only wanted an AR experience and we delivered the same and took Web AR to a new level by bringing great levels of precision to the car. We also brought a whole new angle to the project to show how strong Virtual showroom experiences can be by simply using a web browser. We wanted to be able to say: “If you’re coming to this link and you're taking valuable time out of your life to see this, we want to give you an enriched experience, the full showroom experience.”
LBB>What was an interesting challenge while working on the project?
Ninaad>Trying to deliver a uniform experience across various browsers such as Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari etc was a huge challenge, since each browser would deal with handling 3D objects, lighting and rendering differently. We had to cater to different experiences regardless of the platform or device (Mobile or Desktop).
LBB>You wanted to make the showroom experience seamless and accessible by building different engine platforms. How was this approached? Why was it important that the project would be seamless across devices?
Ninaad>Our aim was to give the customers the full showroom experience without any compromises, and get them as close to previewing the actual car without leaving their home. We’ve bridged CGI pipelines to an augmented reality experience which made the final output clean and pristine. Every asset we’ve built can also be repurposed for additional immersive campaigns, or utilized for broadcast campaigns as well.
Building your assets with an eye towards other platforms and mediums is something we try to stress with all our partners - we want them to get the most out of their creative investment and deliver a beautiful, lasting image with no limitations.
With the built in web-based game engine, the interactive real-time experience allows users to explore the new Audi e-Tron GT on their smartphone, tablet, or within their desktop browser by visiting the activation website, or simply scanning a QR code - there’s no app download required.
We wanted to make the showroom experience seamless across any device, so we created a cloud-based cross-platform output for Audi and TAXI. The user experience for desktop adds additional interactivity - we can put the customer in a stylishly lit showroom where they can manipulate the lighting in addition to the car's colours.
LBB>You said QR codes were sent to some of Audi’s existing customers for testing - what were the results? How important was customer feedback in the process?
Ninaad>The initial release of the project was made with the help of QR codes which were sent to Audi VIPs as part of a mailer to introduce the new eTron vehicle. Results were extremely promising, and a large number of VIPSs revisited the activation more than once. We also measured conversions based on how many of those viewers decided to visit the official Audi store to investigate further and decide to purchase the vehicle.
Rigorous internal testing was done to ensure an engaging immersive experience, hence customer feedback wasn't the focus for the initial release. It was more about driving VIP users to the Audi website to engage them with the car and to push them to schedule test drives, which we saw great success in.
LBB>How did you make the project exciting?
Ninaad>We implemented some of the most cutting-edge web rendering solutions to create an exciting and engaging immersive experience compatible across devices & platforms. The AR leg of the project gives the user the ability to place an Audi eTron in their parking spot, or on a desk... It is a really fun activity and one that generates word of mouth. The virtual showroom leg of the project celebrates the eTron car and its beautiful design with real-time reflections and studio lighting that keeps the user hooked to the experience. In addition, the animation on the car along with sound effects makes a complete audio visual experience.
Harv Glazer>This type of activation will be the future of how people shop and buy cars and Nice Shoes is excited to be at the forefront of this technology especially with a fantastic partner like Audi.
LBB>Are there any hidden details in the AR showroom that you think deserve a mention? How did you make sure the level of detail matched a real-life showroom?
Ninaad>Very early on we knew that achieving a realistic look for the headlights and tail lights was going to be very important and would help make the experience stand out. Achieving this with lights in a real-time experience is very difficult, and would have made the experience very heavy, so we implemented a combination of genius tricks: not a single light was used, but a combination of customs scripts that enabled texture planes to follow the camera direction and cull at a certain degree and animated emissive textures, which gave us exactly the results that were desired.
We added a little hidden secret, since we built the interiors of the car to significant detail, even though we aren't really showcasing the inside of the car, we decided to not restrict the users zoom factor which gives the viewer ability to keep zooming into the car and take a small peek inside it.
LBB>How important was the imagery? Can you explain how you kept the AR vivid and authentic to the studio environment you were creating?
Ninaad>Nice Shoes is known for its work with colour and creating beautiful imagery for brands, so huge attention to detail was paid to rendering reflections, tones, highlights, shadows and hues authentically when the car is placed in various studio and natural environments.
We gave customers the power to also change the paint colours of the car and see it in those different lighting conditions and also, how that might change depending on the time of day.
Harv>Ninaad and our team of tech wizards have truly outdone themselves, showcasing the future of how far we can push WebAR to create incredible client experiences that far surpass the current suite of tools available to any type of business.
LBB>When did you start work on the project? You brought the showroom experience to life remotely - did the COVID lockdowns have an impact on the necessity for this?
Ninaad>It was a one month project with a very strict deadline. We have had a great team working on this from a CGI point of view.
I think one of the biggest hurdles is that we’re still in the pandemic world, so we haven’t been able to actually meet with any of the other team members from the agency or from the client. Generally, when developing a project like this, you have one or a couple of development devices and you can test them with the agency. We’d have weekly meetings where we’d hand over the phone and say “Hey, try it out.” But in this world, we haven’t been able to do that - we can’t really send phones to Canada or around the world just to review.
So we shared our phone screens as many times as possible. But the benefit of this being a real time experience was that we were able to make those edits in real time, while having them on the call. There are benefits to being in the same room, of course, but we also found new solutions for moving forward and getting feedback.
LBB>What was it like working with TAXI?
Ninaad>Working with TAXI was great. Because they have had Audi as a client for a long time now, they really have their language and the design sensibility of Audi ingrained. So they were able to provide us with the right support when it comes to designing UI elements and understanding the user experience. That was really important.
With any of these projects, you need a team that's ready to take risks. It’s crucial. TAXI trusted us extensively, and I think this wouldn't have happened without the trust. If they limited us with just doing the AR, they could have easily just told us that's all they want. But giving me space to be creative and being giving Nice Shoes, that opportunity to really explore new arenas in a commercial project like that is unique.
LBB>So did you always have this kind of customer experience and the ease of use as a forethought when creating the experience?
Ninaad>Absolutely. The user flow and experience was designed by Nice Shoes and us as a team. We heavily focused on making sure that there were as few clicks as possible, so you're not being taken away from it in random directions. So making sure that when you scan the QR code, you get to see the experience for what it is straight off the bat. With no hurdles.
Our developers worked really hard to make sure that we incorporated very new challenges. For example, the lights on the car: they're completely fake. There's no actual lighting there. It’s all textures. But when I move to the corner, they slowly dim off. That’s a very, very complex feature. We did complex math to make sure the algorithm was running perfectly.