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Chevy’s augmented reality test drive puts you behind the wheel of your dream car

The same video game technology that powers Microsoft’s Gears of War 4 and Epic Games’ new Battle Breakers game is also being used by Chevrolet.

But the car company isn’t employing Unreal Engine 4 to drive a new video game experience. Instead, this technology is changing the concept of car customization at Chevrolet. And it has the potential to revolutionize the entire auto industry, thanks to a brand new Blackbird motion tracking vehicle that can literally transform into any vehicle – from a ’69 Camaro to a Chevy FNR concept car.

Both of these concepts are on display at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week at Epic’s booth. And they’re made possible by real-time rendering, a long-time staple of the video game industry that’s now expanding beyond entertainment across other verticals.

“We live in a world that’s increasingly becoming digital,” Kim Libreri, Epic Games’ chief technology officer, told Digital Trends. “The ability for a game engine, especially Unreal Engine 4, to bridge the gap between our real world and the virtual world, is an important aspect of where we’re going. Augmented reality’s on the horizon.”

“Augmented reality’s on the horizon.”

Augmented reality is already a reality. And Epic has teamed up with ad agency The Mill and Chevrolet to superimpose photorealistic vehicles like the Camaro ZL1 on top of an actual vehicle (dubbed the Blackbird) that’s capturing a 360-degree view of the Angeles Crest Highway in Los Angeles (minus the LA traffic). While Chevy and The Mill have experimented with this augmented reality concept in the past, it was always done in post production.

Sam Russell, general director of global marketing for Chevrolet, told Digital Trends back in 2013 The Mill took a C6 Corvette and decorated it with motion tracking markers to shoot a live action commercial. Then in post production they rendered the C7 Corvette over it using 3D computer-generated modeling.

“That opened the idea of doing a generic customizable motion tracking vehicle set up for just this,” Russell said.

And the Blackbird, which has also been called Raven, was born. The simple black car was used to shoot commercials for the Chevy Sonic, but there was still an issue. The film crew couldn’t accurately get a sense for what the new vehicle looked like in the shot until after the spot was filmed. They needed some type of technology that could not only produce photorealistic imagery, but accurately depict lighting and shadows – all in real-time while housed in a mobile camera SUV (in this case a Mercedes-Benz ML) that chased the Blackbird.

Enter Epic Games, which has greatly expanded its clientele beyond video game makers over the past few years. The independent developer has also steered into the automobile industry through its Unreal Engine Enterprise division, working with companies like McLaren, Jaguar, BMW, McLaren, Toyota’s Australian unit and now Chevrolet.

The Race

The end result of this first marriage between real-time game rendering and real-world Hollywood-style commercial production debuts today from Chevy. “The Race” is a 60-second video that pits the 2017 Camaro ZL1 against the Chevy FNR concept car. There’s also a ’69 Camaro available for this demo, which debuts at GDC.

The “aha” moment comes when you realized that none of these vehicles ever touched the pavement in LA. They’re all AR creations born of a video game engine, and powered by a high-end consumer PC with an NVIDIA graphics card.

Libreri believes what people are going to take out of this prototype video is, “Wow, when AR really comes, it could be amazing.”

“If you can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s virtual, it’s a game changer in terms of what you can do,” Libreri said. “Right now when you think of consumer AR, it’s something like laying simple penguins over a background. What we wanted to do with this is really show people that using current NVIDIA hardware, look what we can do. Imagine what the world’s going to be like in five years from now.”

“If you can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s virtual, it’s a game changer.”

Russell is excited what he can do today. As a marketing exec, it’s his job to generate excitement about vehicles before they’re released. And that poses a lot of logistical problems, including the lack of actual vehicles for expensive commercial shoots, or the need to keep the actual cars under wraps for specific auto shows. The Blackbird can transform into any vehicle, and anyone who happens to catch a video or picture of it will have no idea what that transformation will be. Only the film crew, which can see the CGi vehicle in real-time, know the secret identity.

“The cars are never identical for different markets, whether they change the color or the wheel or a feature on the car like chrome mirrors or integrated blinkers,” Russell said. “Now you just have one car on the shoot and you can render versions for every market with the computer. It’ll save hundreds of thousands of dollars on a same-day shoot and millions of dollars on a global shoot.”

Custom Cars: Let’s Get Digital

Chevy has also teamed with Epic Games to create a car configurator using Unreal Engine 4 and the very same assets that power “The Race.”  In fact, you can customize the Camaro and then watch your version of the vehicle take on the concept car.

Libreri believes car manufacturers will be happy that a car configurator can actually produce something that looks like their cars, and they’re going to see the options that open up a much more deeper engagement.

“With this Blackbird technology that The Mill has, they could put cars on racing tracks, drive through beautiful locations, and it’d be the car you just customized,” Libreri said.

At GDC, Epic is showcasing a giant touch screen TV that allows anyone to customize the new Camaro to their liking. The company has even integrated Google Tango AR into the demo, allowing the smartphone to act like a video camera inside the virtual world so you can look at the vehicle from any angle.

“Out on horizon, one of the more powerful sales tools we have is helping people imagine themselves in that vehicle,” Russell said. “Today’s TV ads aren’t customizable. When you go to car configurators today with all the colors and wheels types and options, we want you to imagine the vehicle you want. This technology allows us to run footage of the customer’s actual car. And we can customize the ad to the car they want to buy. Eventually, we’ll be able to place the people inside the footage ith virtual reality. There are a lot of possibilities for this technology.”

Libreri said the same customized car could be used in a video game experience in the future.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t make a companion driving application at whatever their favorite test track is,” Libreri said. “That’s the nice thing about using a game engine because when we build an asset, it doesn’t need to just be a high quality piece of computer graphics like you would make for a movie or a TV show, it can be an actual virtual vehicle with steering, suspension and friction.”

Video game technology is helping Chevy find new roads today, but the bigger implications are just on the horizon. In a customizable, digital world, ordering the exact car you want through the cloud will become commonplace, just as virtual reality replaces the need to have new vehicles parked at dealership lots. And you’ll no longer have to imagine what you look like behind the wheel, you’ll be able to experience it – virtually. It’s also nice for those who have a need for speed, since speed limits won’t hold anyone back using this technology.