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Lexus opens the door for virtual production in Unity

January 2, 2020 in Industry | 6 min. read

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Car buyers increasingly expect rich and unique online experiences during their purchase journeys. In this post, learn how Lexus is using Unity to reimagine the production process for advertising/marketing content – ultimately paving the way for the automaker and its creative partners to create high-fidelity imagery and videos faster, more cost-effectively, and at an unprecedented scale. 

We recently collaborated with Lexus and its agency Team One to create a real-time configurator showcasing the Lexus ES MY19. While you may be familiar with consumer-focused car configurators – commonly seen in web-based “build and price” tools – this new process provides richer capabilities for industry professionals. 

First, it was purpose-built for developing virtual productions that are too difficult or too expensive to create in the real world. Additionally, instead of providing a generic user experience, it opens up a full-scale vehicle in real-time – with interactive components – letting Lexus and Team One tailor the car’s appearance, setting, perspective, time of day and more.

With this new process, professionals can switch move through configurations, switching trims and paint colors on the fly. View the car at night or from any angle. Ditto for swapping out interior options. When they’ve tailored and staged their ideal vehicle, they can capture the perfect shot through a virtual single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. And that spells innovation for Lexus.

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Listen as Lexus and Team One explain how Unity is transforming their virtual productions.

Real-time 3D enables omotenashi

So how did this innovation at Lexus come about? It started simply, with the brand's philosophy to always put the customer first. And one of the ways they try to accomplish that is by practicing omotenashi, the Japanese concept of treating each customer as if he or she is a valued guest in your home and truly anticipating their needs.

This plays out in interesting ways for virtual productions. Traditional methods of creating and delivering car imagery and content produce static, pre-rendered visuals that aren’t truly interactive. As a result, they don’t cater to people’s expectations or take advantage of the changing digital and social media landscape.

Since the emergence of highly visual platforms such as Instagram, the behavior and expectations of consumers, especially millennials, have changed radically. Potential car buyers now want to see their “fantasy” ride in exciting or dramatic locations, igniting their imaginations. Virtual productions made with Unity pave the way for Lexus to offer these hyper-personalized experiences.

Setting the stage for the real-time configurator

Just before Unite Copenhagen in September, the Team One crew selected an appealing location in Denmark as a setting for their in-development app. They collaborated with experts from British image library Domeble, who specialize in CGI, 3D and VR production. Working at Amalienborg Palace, home to the Danish royal family, the team got down to work capturing high-resolution shots – at various times of day – of this marvel completed in 1760. This reality capture data was then used as the basis for photogrammetric scans, which helped the studio elite3d model the courtyard entirely in 3D.

Wide-angle view of Amalienborg Palace with a virtual Lexus in front. Environment credits to Domeble and elite3d

“One of the great things about creating volumetric assets for virtual production is the car doesn’t have to be there at all. This is a huge advantage for companies and their agencies,” said Edward Martin, Unity’s Senior Product Manager for Automotive, Transportation & Manufacturing. “First, virtual productions don’t require months of planning or incur the logistics costs of transporting the vehicle, including lighting and props, nor do they need a large crew, crane or set on-site.” 

Another typical issue for traditional photoshoots is that there’s a fair amount of secrecy around new models, making it almost impossible to pose the real car near urban landmarks or popular vistas. Virtual productions say goodbye to such concerns. And if the weather doesn’t cooperate, there can be costly delays. 

“For the Amalienborg shoot, we simply picked a day with nice weather,” explains Martin. “There were no special setups required. After a couple of hours – including golden hour – we had all the data we needed to create the volumetric scene, and Team One was able to load the best shots into their app and begin staging the car virtually.”

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Building the real-time configurator in Unity

As a proof of concept, Team One assembled their virtual production assets in Unity, adding a UI and virtual-camera options to create the real-time configurator. The app’s interactive controls for the car include the ability to configure the trim level, interior and exterior colors and add animations, while the Environment controls include Time of Day, Position, and Rotation. Once the creative team has tailored and staged the car exactly as they want, they can view it through the virtual SLR camera and access familiar photography controls. For example, they can choose from five different lens types, as well as f-stops and ISO settings, to get the perfect photo-realistic look – wide-angle or tightly cropped, narrow or wide depth of field, and so on.

A major advantage of virtual productions is being able to control all aspects of a set and lighting without the cost, timing or secrecy challenges of site photography.

“We had fun on this project and it all came together in time for Unite Copenhagen,” Martin says. “Team One tapped a number of new Unity features, including the High Definition Render Pipeline (HDRP) and Shader Graph.” 

Other benefits for carmakers and agencies considering creating a real-time app include vastly simplified post-production workflows (e.g., with a virtual car, no smudges or other cosmetic blemishes to worry about), ease of rendering lifelike textures such as leather, and ability to integrate inexpensive digital props from the Asset Store rather than managing physical props. 

“I’m really excited about the possibilities of real-time and engines like Unity,” said Alastair Green, Executive Creative Director at Team One. “Creating at the speed of conception gives us the ability to have an idea in the morning, execute by the afternoon, and post on social media by the evening. We can take omotenashi to the next level by delivering personalized content at scale and in near real-time to the Lexus community.”

“People’s expectations are set by the experiences they have online,” said Gabe Munch, Digital and Social Media Manager at Lexus USA. “When you can make something more interactive and personalized, you’re always going to see more engagement.”

To learn more about how Team One developed their Lexus ES MY19 virtual production and real-time configurator in Unity, check out Part 2 of this post. Pierre Yves Donzallaz, from Unity’s Spotlight team, goes behind the scenes and explains how the High Definition Render Pipeline and other features were key for optimizing the visual quality for high-end visualizations.  

For more general information about the many use cases for Unity and real-time 3D, see Unity for Automotive. Get started on your real-time 3D journey by trying or buying Unity Industrial Collection today.

January 2, 2020 in Industry | 6 min. read

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