Fiat may have been the first car company to take Google’s Tango 3D augmented reality system for a spin as a prototype tool for potential customers — that was at the Mobile World Congress in February 2016 — but at this year’s CES, BMW has become the first carmaker to take the technology and launch it as a real-world tool.

Tango is what Google calls a smartphone or tablet whose cameras have depth and distance sensing so that it can create three-dimensional imagery and can place an object within a realistic space, such as a car in a showroom or on an owner’s driveway.

Using a suitable smartphone, starting today, potential customers considering a BMW i8 or BMW i3 will be able to take an interactive tour of the car, inside and out, select colours and interior options and even interact with elements such as the doors and trunk.

“Our vehicles are emotional products and to get that emotional feeling, you really need to experience them,” commented Andrea Castronovo, BMW Group Vice President, Sales Strategy and Future Retail.

“In situations where the desired product isn’t available on the spot, this visualisation is the next best thing.”

The system, developed with Accenture and Google, will be launched as a pilot scheme at a number of BMW dealerships starting today. At each location a “Product Genius” will be on hand with a smartphone to give visitors an augmented digital tour of a vehicle.

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Once the initial tests are completed, BMW plans to roll out the service as an app so that anyone with a Tango-enabled Android handset can experience it for themselves without having to visit a dealership.

And although the whole experience is no bigger visually than the smartphone’s screen, according to BMW, the experience is life-like enough for people to forget that the tour is virtual.

“In our initial tests, we saw people ducking down when they were getting into the car, as if there really were a roof there for them to bang their heads on,” said Castronovo.

And that’s part of the reason for the app’s creation. Technology is changing the way people research, choose and even buy cars. Some customers are already sufficiently confident to complete the entire process online without ever seeing the car until delivery day.

“Our research shows that consumers are seeking improved use of technologies like augmented reality during the car-buying process to make the online-offline experience more compelling,” said Christina Raab, managing director in Accenture’s Automotive practice.