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Take the newest Prius for a virtual spin

Engadget Engadget 12/09/2016 Andrew Tarantola
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Toyota has a new car and a new way to market it. During Techcrunch Disrupt this week, the automaker will show off its new Prius Prime, a plug-in version of its popular hybrid vehicle. But rather than have attendees simply clamber through a static floor model, Toyota wants to take them for a ride -- a virtual one.

The demonstration begins with users donning a Vive VR headset and controller before being introduced to Toyota's in-house version of Google's Tilt Brush painting program and tasked with creating a piece of virtual 3D art. Once complete, the user puts down the controllers and sits down in a hydraulically-driven mechanical chair for a unique 4D VR experience dubbed "The Impossible Quest":

You're behind the wheel of the new Prius Prime and must safely deliver a mysterious stranger and his even more mysterious package to his destination, all while outrunning and outmaneuvering a cadre of villains who are in pursuit. The experience has the user navigating an ever changing cityscape designed in collaboration with Syd Mead, the concept artist for Tron and Blade Runner, as well as Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles and MediaMonks. While you're dodging baddies, your passenger (who somehow knows more about your car than you do) show off some of the Prime's various features, functions and benefits.

Toyota enhances this virtualized experience by blasting you with air and water vapor at certain moments throughout, just like those 4D theaters you've been trying to avoid. After you give your pursuers the slip and arrive at the destination, you're rewarded by getting to see what's in the box. That's right, your passenger will totally show you his package and -- surprise spoiler! -- it's the artwork you created a just few minutes before, displayed in a virtual gallery with other users' recent creations.

The painting mechanics were custom-built by Toyota's team of designers and animators -- and in just a little over a month, no less. They decided to build a one-off alternative to Tilt Brush because Toyota found that they couldn't display the program's files in real-time inside the Unity game engine, with which the rest of the interactive experience is built. Unity, if you recall, is the engine that has brought us everything from Pokemon Go and Hearthstone to Alto's Adventure and Firewatch. In this case, it does a commendable job rendering Mead's futuristic vision, even if it can't instantly add multiple user-generated elements to a virtual world.

I was afforded a hands-on demonstration of the Impossible Quest prior to the opening of Disrupt and came away impressed by the experience. The demo itself is a bit hokey and really just a glorified brochure for the new Prius Prime. But so long as you understand that you're being treated to what amounts to an extended commercial and not a game or artistic performance, it's actually rather impressive. Not the actual driving part, of course -- I mean, you're in a Prius. What's more, there is precious actual driving to do. For the most part you can just sit there with your hands in your lap as the story unfolds around you. The entire experience lasts about 4 minutes.

But the fact that you can "sit" in a near-photorealistic virtual model of a modern vehicle, get a relative feel for the its handling through the pneumatic chair, and see all the bells and whistles (even if you can't actually touch them) is an interesting method of marketing a car. Since their invention, you've had to go to where the cars are to preview them. That's no issue if you live near a dealership but if you're out in the sticks, taking a gander at a new ride can be challenging. But with this system, entire vehicles can be digitized -- just like CDs and other physical goods before them. Now if you want to know what it's like to drive a specific vehicle, all you really need is a VR headset and somewhere to sit down.

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