SAN JOSE, California -- If the Audi R8 looks good through a showroom window, just imagine how it looks through a virtual-reality space helmet.
When shoppers strap on Oculus Rift headsets in Audi showrooms late this year, they will get to visualize the German luxury brand's cars on the surface of the moon, where, of course, they have never been.
Sending digital cars to the frontiers of space is a suitable metaphor for the challenge automakers face this year with the consumer rollout of VR headsets. With the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift headsets on sale, marketers want to exploit the technology, but VR is a medium unlike any other, and there is no playbook for using it to market effectively.
So Audi is developing one as it goes, based on how people use its VR experience, said Marcus Kuehne, the leader of Audi's project, at a computing conference this month here. For instance, Audi added an X-ray effect so that if a user leans his head into a car, its body panels turn semitransparent, revealing the components underneath.
Graphic designers originally added the transparency effect to prevent images from rendering incorrectly. They quickly discovered that people liked looking past the sheet metal -- an impossible experience with actual cars in a showroom.
"To me, this is the essence of VR and one of the most important lessons we have learned," Kuehne said at the conference, hosted by chipmaker Nvidia Corp. "If you try to reproduce reality, people like it. But if you make things possible which are not possible in reality, that really excites people."
In the three years since Audi started working with Oculus, which Facebook bought for $2 billion in 2014, computers have become much more powerful.
Three years ago, a headset could deliver video at 50 frames per second with 45 milliseconds of delay, which felt disorienting, Kuehne said. But by the end of 2015, computers could render 3-D images at 90 frames per second with 20 milliseconds of delay -- quick enough for a realistic experience.
Audi plans to bring headsets to German dealers within a few weeks for demonstrations. Consumers who ordered headsets have endured lengthy waiting lists, and "we're waiting too," Kuehne said.
Pilot projects should begin near year end at Audi's flagship stores in cities such as Berlin and London. Audi has not announced its rollout plans for the U.S., though its flagship store in Manhattan seems like a strong possibility.
For now Audi's virtual-reality experience will be confined to dealerships. It is easy to imagine customers sitting at home and building a car in various configurations to decide which version they would buy, but not many customers will have headsets for the next few years. Audi hopes its dealerships will be one of the first places that customers experience VR before buying their own headsets.
"This will be a part of the future," Kuehne said, referring to content for consumer devices. "For the moment, we are totally focused on the dealer experience."