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Shopping for a Fiat? Step into a virtual one in your home

A demonstration of Google's Project Tango augmented reality system paints a picture of the "future of the dealership."

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
2 min read
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Car dealerships can be a stressful.

Sure, it's a chance for you to get an up-close-and-personal look at your next potential ride, but then there are the salesmen to contend with. Maybe you just want to check out the vehicle in peace.

Augmented reality, which superimposes digital images on top of the real world, aims to cut out the dealership by giving you a virtual representation of a Fiat 500 that you can walk around, get inside and customize with different colors and rims -- all with a phone. The demonstration, shown off at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, was created by consulting firm Accenture in partnership with Google, which has been working on the technology through its "Project Tango" initiative, and Fiat.

It's the latest example of augmented reality, which is in vogue thanks to the backing of heavy tech hitters such as Google and Microsoft. While Microsoft has its unique HoloLens headset, Google has opted to push this technology to phones, with the first Project Tango-enabled phone coming from Lenovo this summer in an effort to drive it mainstream. Unlike virtual reality, which completely immerses you in a world that surrounds you, augmented reality blends the digital and physical worlds together.

In the case of Fiat, you'll be able to pull up a full-scale Fiat 500 on the screen of your Project Tango device (because the phone isn't out yet, I used the tablet-sized Google development kit). The technology, which senses your motion and location, allows you to move your screen up and down to view the car at different angle.

Spec up the perfect car from the comfort of your phone (pictures)

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Walk a few steps forward, and you can get into the car to check out the interior of the highly detailed 3D imagery. Look up at the windshield and you'll see the real world again. You can even tap on the radio to play music (you'll be able to honk the horn in a future release).

You can customize the color of the car and its interior, as well as change the rims. The idea is that you'll be able to see all of the different options available that even physical dealerships wouldn't have on hand.

Watch this: In the future you'll shop for cars using AR

"It's the future of the dealership," said Matteo Aliberti, digital innovation lead for Accenture Interactive. "We can give the perfect experience to the customer."

In the near term, Aliberti said he sees usage in both the home, where you can place direct your Project Tango phone at the garage to see where the car fits, as well as the dealership, since most people won't have access to the technology at the start.

Accenture is working on getting this app ready for the phone launch in the summer, but wouldn't commit to a release date. It will be a free app to encourage consumers to try out the technology and the car.