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  • 10.07.15
  • the new magic

Mini’s Illuminating Journey to VR

In its ongoing pursuit of innovation, the automaker has never shied away from bold experiments and unreasonable thinking. That’s how the iconic brand was born.

Mini’s Illuminating Journey to VR

This special report was created by FastCo.Works,
a division of Fast Company, in partnership with MINI.

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IT STARTED WITH A BOX. Not some new virtual-reality hardware, but a different piece of technology that tilted the paradigm for how an entire industry thought about form, function, and customer engagement.

The tech was the MINI, and the box was an outline drawn closely around four adults sitting on the floor. The visionary guiding the chalk was 50-year-old Sir Alec Issigonis, who had been challenged by his boss—Sir Leonard Lord of England-based Morris Motors—to create a fuel-efficient vehicle that could address a very practical problem: the 1957 Suez Crisis that had sent oil prices soaring throughout England as the country was still digging out of the rubble of World War II.

Issigonis had studied engineering, but his passion was design. An innovator and a true iconoclast, Issigonis once described the secret to his design approach as “never copy the opposition.” He referred to market research—yes, it existed even back then—as “the enemy of every truly creative man.”

So when tasked with creating a car that went against the then-popular trend of large, roomy vehicles, Issigonis started with his box. “There,” he told his team as he connected the last line. “We will design the car around this.”

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The trajectory of companies can be determined by moments such as this, moments that require an openness to new thinking and the creativity to envision a breakthrough. Issigonis’s untraditional schematic led to two groundbreaking engineering choices: wheels pushed to the edges of the chassis to create room in the car’s efficient interior and, in a true paradigm shift, an engine mounted sideways to increase turning stability and, again, to optimize space. And Issigonis’s boldness fostered a culture of innovation that has encouraged inventiveness at the automaker ever since.

The MINI was put into production in 1959 and became a cultural symbol of progressive, modern thinking. When the Global Automotive Elections Foundation asked experts to rank the cars of the 20th century—a three-year project that ended in December 1999—MINI finished second to the only car whose ranking was guaranteed from the start, the Ford Model T.

What made MINI a classic wasn’t all about practical concerns. The charm came from the fact that MINI was able to combine smart engineering with style. “We call the legacy of MINI ‘responsible hedonism,’” says Esther Bahne, head of impact ventures for BMW/MINI. “It’s still the most reasonable unreasonable car you can find.”

History explains why MINI is so interested in the development of VR, as the technology is a natural reflection of the brand’s commitment to test anything that’s cool and different. “We love new stuff,” says Marc Lengning, the company’s global head of brand management. “We have always loved new stuff.”

Since the birth of the MINI, technology has improved and options have changed. But the company’s designers have never lost sight of the importance of what Bahne calls the “loving details”: the racing stripes on the hood, the mood lighting in the interior cabin, the giant Crayola box of mix-and-match color options for everything from the side mirrors to the roof, the “roller-skate handling.”

Patrick Dahms saw this commitment firsthand as a company intern in 2012. “Oculus Rift had just launched its Kickstarter campaign,” he says. “I thought the idea was so great, and it was kind of cheap, so I signed up and bought one for myself just as a personal thing. For my first VR project, I created a huge virtual skyscraper in 3-D. And then I jumped off the building. The first few minutes of that experience were thrilling. I felt like an 8-year-old boy again. It felt like a new world.”

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After his internship, Dahms did his master’s thesis at the BMW Group Technology Office U.S.A., focusing on VR, which then turned into a full-time position—a job built around exploring the possibilities and opportunities of VR for automotive.

BMW R&D in Silicon Valley started to “extend its VR research to internal projects as well as customer-facing initiatives, such as future retail,” says Dahms, who is now the company’s advanced technical artist. “BMW/MINI was very open-minded. I have been talking to pretty much everyone developing VR ever since.”

As with other industries such as health care, education, and entertainment, early forms of VR had been used in automaking for decades, most notably by engineers testing preproduction features. But the combination of accessible technology and more polished experiences has opened the possibility of tapping into a broader—and more intriguing—new audience: creative thinkers who not only represent MINI’s customer base, but whose skills and talents will best move VR forward to unlock value for all industries in the future.

The company understands that many practical applications of VR are either in the works or being dreamed up with staggering speed these days. It also knows that these innovations—from helping customers “see” the myriad interior color options that MINI offers to a better form of teleconferencing for a company with key decision makers scattered throughout the U.S. and Europe—will one day improve the business. But practical should not be the beginning and end of creative exploration for companies intent on driving innovation. The journey should be more adventurous.More brave. After all, what would Sir Alec do if he were handed a VR headset and allowed to noodle around with it before he designed a car? He’d probably instruct his team to dream. To play. To have some fun.

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It is in that spirit that MINI commissioned two short films in VR, Backwater and Real Memories. The films are fictional stories, an adventure and a thriller, respectively. The MINI appears in both films, but the cars are not the heroes. They and their new technology—MINI Connected, a proprietary in-car system that enables a driver’s mobile device’s entertainment and communication offerings—are woven into the drama and the immersive VR environment.

“If you think about all the communication channels happening right now, how we’re watching TV and surfing on an iPad and emailing at the same time—what VR does is create focus,” says Lee Nadler, marketing communications manager at MINI. “In a parallel way, that’s what MINI Connected does for you as a driver, so it’s a natural fit to demonstrate that in VR.”

The ultimate goal of MINI’s films is to start a creative conversation with like-minded thinkers, inviting them to join in the exploration of a new frontier. “What will be a success is if creatives—the artists and innovators—appreciate the work,” says Lengning. “It’s a relatively small group of people we’re trying to speak to. But these are special people. If we can create something that makes them say we did something interesting and compelling, that would be important.”

Because if any group can—and should—lead the next development of VR, it’s the creatives. “We want creative people, one after the other, to take the steps that follow and raise the bar for VR,” says Lengning. “That’s what will need to happen to see the full potential of this technology.”

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So often the future echoes the past. For MINI and VR, once again it’s all starting with a box. In this case, the cardboard box you’ve just received and been invited to use to enjoy a couple of short films. It’s a simple box— but MINI believes you have the vision to see what lies beyond it.


Bob Der for FastCo. Works
Illustration by Sébastien Plassard