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Virtual-reality boating is the wave of the future

It was a blustery 20 degrees, with snow on the ground and a frozen lake, when I walked into the showroom at Ohio’s Buckeye Sports Center to look over the new Super Air Nautique G-21. Its styling and dramatic surf graphics made the boat an immediate turn-on.

Next, Jim Armington said: “I think you should take her for a spin.”

“You mean next spring?” I asked. “No, right now,” he answered as he handed me a virtual-reality headset. Almost instantly, I was seated at the helm with its Panoray touch screen bright before me. I throttled up, heard the engine rev, looked to my right and left to see and hear the sound of spray coming off the hull. At that point, I probably could have even felt wind in my hair — if I had any hair.

From the six JL Audio speakers, Beyoncé was rocking “Freedom” and when I turned my head to look back, there was a wakesurfer riding the stern wave. I watched as he actually controlled his “surf” using a surf selector app on his Pebble Watch. This whole thing seemed incredibly real. I was feeling a rush!

Did this actually happen? No. Could it be a new selling tool for dealers in the future, especially Northern dealers hampered by winter? Sure.

It’s virtual reality (VR) or, as computer scientists often refer to it, virtual environment (VE). Call it what you will, VR and other futuristic technologies are being used by a number of retailers right now.

The Home Depot, for example, has embraced VR to help shoppers figure out ways to decorate rooms when they put on a headset and look all around in 3-D at how some item will look. In some cases, it can even be overlaid on top of their real kitchen or living room.

Neiman Marcus is reportedly using interactive mirrors in 20 stores that offer shoppers a 360-degree view of what an outfit will look like. It allows shoppers to make side-by-side comparisons without having to try them all on. And they can even share video with friends for feedback.

The keynote speaker at the recent Marine Dealer Conference & Expo, author Josh Linker of “The Road to Reinvention,” (www.joshlinker.com), noted the value of the VR experience. “It separates my physical location from where I am now,” he said. “We’re not talking about teenagers playing games in the basement here. Once we unlock the ability to disconnect our location from our presence, we can be anywhere, experiencing almost anything.”

A person using VR equipment is typically able to “look around” his artificial world, even move around in it and interact with features or items that are depicted on the screen in front of their eyes. Put another way, in the VR environment the user experiences immersion, or the distinct feeling of being inside and a part of that world. He is also able to interact with this environment in meaningful ways, like changing the boat’s direction, speed and activities.

To complete things, audio and sounds are put through speakers or headphones and there is even the technology to include some sensory (vibrations, for example) recognition. The 3-D images appear to be life-sized from the perspective of the user. And how it’s able to track a user’s motions, particula­rly his head and eye movements, and correspondingly adjust the images on the user’s display to reflect his change in perspective, is a lot more than my simple mind can grasp.

But the bottom line is that using today’s computer technology to create a simulated world that the user can manipulate, explore and feel as if he were really in that world is likely coming to a dealership near you. If I were a betting man, I wager a few that someone in our industry is already moving well down this VR road.

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