Audi’s new showroom in London’s Piccadilly certainly goes down the radical route. The ground floor of the Audi City store doesn’t have a car to be seen anywhere. Instead the open space opts for "virtual access" to the full car range via three huge screens.
Now we get music downloads and online banking, but is a hands-off car showroom the future that’s best suited to busy city environments? Pocket-lint was on hand at the opening to see what the fuss is all about.
Walk into the Audi City store and there’s certainly plenty of space. The interior design has a sweeping staircase encased in angular grey panels - the kind that wouldn’t be far out of place on the StarShip Enterprise - that leads down into private customisation rooms. It’s one swanky looking venue, both inside and out, located right next to Green Park station and just a stone’s throw from Mayfair.
On the entrance level the majority of the room is dominated by three main screens, dubbed "power walls" by Audi. Each of these displays is made up of nine 70-inch panels, so the size alone grants its bold title.
But it’s the tech that’s the most dominating. One power wall has a physical interaction system where you’re identified by cameras, and can then activate selections on the big screen by walking left or right. Think on the scale of the giant piano in Tom Hank’s 1988 classic Big, or maybe a bit of Playstation 3’s Just Dance and you’re most of the way there.
It’s possible to select any Audi model, load it up on screen at its true-to-life scale, choose your desired colour and trim and then watch it drive - in its virtual form, of course - right in front of you on the big screen. The specific engine to that car also sounds in the speakers overhead to round off the experience.
You can strip the car down to show drivetrain, body shell or LED light technology presented individually for a more detailed understanding of each element.
Other touch-sensitive screens around the room are choc full of Audi info, promotional videos and the like. You can watch on small scale or swipe your content on to the larger screen. Store staff each have an iPad to adjust volume and keep overall control.
Downstairs in the customisation rooms things step up a gear. Design-chic white tables have touch-sensitive screens built into them, while the large screen to the wall can have content "swiped" on to it, much like the a click and drag motion of a smartphone. Hands-on rotation lets you manoeuvre the vehicle around to check it out from any angle.
But here’s where it gets even cooler. The swatches on the wall - which show all of Audi’s paint finishes and internal trim - can be taken off their mounts and positioned on the Wi-Fi marker on the table to update your virtual car with the selected finish. No screen tapping required, you can use your own eyes. That’s about as physical as it gets in here!
You can then save your tailored package to a memory stick with Audi’s own code copied over so that when in any future City store - and there are 19 more planned to appear around the world by 2015, with China’s Bejing next in line - you can pop the memory stick back on the desk, load up your content and, who knows, go the extra mile and buy the car. Turnaround time for a custom car is around 12 weeks.
Audi is also very keen to emphasise the customer service available. The Audi City store isn’t just about the toys, it’s also there to act as a customer’s central point of contact, including pre and after-sales assistance.
It's not without one or two glitches, though. The system ought to be faster to ping between one screen selection to another, while the power wall was unable to play back a stable, stutter-free video or engine sound (a technical hitch that we’re sure can be fixed, but one that shows such a set up has its vulnerabilities).
Video quality on the smaller screens also isn’t the kind of high-definition we’d expect, particularly when the display technology is there to deal with it. And this isn’t internet streaming: the servers located behind the scenes hold all the information. Fussing? Yeah, we probably are, but that’s what we’re here for. It seems there are one or two bumps in this road that need resurfacing before it’s the silky smooth, er, ride that it can and should be.
So what do we think overall? Well it’s all good fun, it’s different, but then it’s also an extra layer of distance from product to customer. Sometimes a real hands-on experience can’t be beaten, but then if you can’t get out to any other Audi showroom then it’s a fun alternative. No other manufacturer offers such an experience, granted, but then whether there’s genuine demand for such a system, beyond fiddling around with the toys during a shopping trip, is the big question.
The future for city-based car showrooms? Let us know what you think in the comments below...