Product configurators are the new gold standard in shopping. This solution, which lets you see, customize, and order a product all on the same page has proven incredibly successful in attracting sales, boosting customer engagement with brands, and even taking a load off sales teams. However, while modern product configurator development is mostly focused on eCommerce, there is a lot more you can do with them, especially with the right tools in your arsenal.
In this article, we will examine one of the best configurator development tools available – Unreal Engine, and why it is particularly great for making car configurators.
Why Unreal? Choosing an Engine for Your Car Configurator
At its core, a 3D product configurator is just like any other piece of software – it is usually built with a common programming language, deployed on a popular platform, and does not have any universal approach to development. In other words, developers can make this type of solution with a wide range of tools. But there are a few reasons why Unreal Engine is a top choice:
Broad platform support
Many people call UE a one-size-fits-all solution because of the extraordinary number of platforms supported by the engine – 15. This includes Web, PC (Windows, Linux, Mac), Mobile (Android, iOS), console (Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo), and immersive (AR, VR). In other words, it brings together all sorts of developers and gives them the foundation to launch their solutions on many platforms at once.
Helpful built-in tools
It is a common misconception that because UE is a game engine, it should only be used for game projects. The truth is, it is used for developing enterprise and non-entertainment apps all the time. In fact, the makers of Unreal put great effort into stimulating these areas of development. Speaking about car configurators in particular, Epic Games provides a sample project featuring a car configurator that anyone can use as a reference when creating their own solutions.
A massive community of developers
With over 7.5 million developers using Unreal, we can certainly call this one of the most popular forms of dev software in the world. For reference, Visual Studio (perhaps the most popular IDE) has about 14 million users. Why is this important? Because the more developers use a language or engine, the easier it will be for you to find qualified candidates for your project – more will be available.
Spectacular visual features
The visual aspect of a configurator is extremely important, as it satisfies a key desire of the user – to see the product change according to different configurations and see it up close. Unreal Engine is always praised for its advanced graphic capabilities, and these certainly extend to configurators. Using the engine, you can implement stunning features like ray tracing, volumetric clouds, and movie-quality renders.
Support for rapid development
Though working with C++ code (the primary component of Unreal apps) is hardly easy or fast, UE provides another tool for rapid development – Blueprints. This is a visual scripting system that lets you create pieces of functionality quickly and with minimal hassle. It is highly useful for MVPs and Prototypes, but is also commonly used for creating a few core features in a complex app. You can’t use Blueprints for everything, but when you can, it lets you save a lot of time.
What about Unity?
Unity is another big name in the field of configurator development, and another engine that lets you develop for a wide range of platforms. We won’t get into which engine is better, since you can find more information about it in our rank-up of Unity vs Unreal. However, we can mention that Unity is quite easy to learn, let’s you create a wide range of functionality, and is also used by millions of developers.
Types of Configurators You Can Build with Unreal Engine
There are 2 popular approaches to the visual presentation of configurators, both of which are supported by the UE4 engine:
Pre-rendered car configurator with Unreal Engine
Pre-rendered visuals (images/video) are essentially recordings. The 3D models and content are previously rendered on another device, and your device only has to load the images/video rather than creating the 3D content based on instructions.
- Shortens load times
- Not all images need to be 3D modeled
- Supported by many types of hardware
- Limited user interactions
- Pre-rendered images often lose some detail
- Harder to make scenes dynamic
Real-time car configurator with Unreal Engine
A real-time configurator features a 3D model (and sometimes an accompanying 3D environment, VFX, animation) that users can interact with. The visuals must be generated by the user’s device based on instructions and data from the application.
- More freedom to interact with the model
- Provide a higher level of detail
- More realistic and visually impressive
- Longer to develop
- Loading the application can take minutes
Other Key Decisions for Your Unreal Car Configurator
If you choose to build such a solution, you will have to make numerous decisions beyond how the content should be loaded. We want to focus on the two biggest ones – the choice of platform and of features.
For companies that primarily generate profit by selling their products online, the go-to choice of platform is Web. They normally deploy a web application on the same page where their product is presented, or at least link to it from that page. That way, users can quickly find the product, choose the variant they like, and proceed to checkout, all in the span of a few minutes. This approach is most popular for clothing and simple products with a handful of customization options.
Sometimes, the company expects users to spend more than a few minutes examining and customizing their products, and in these cases, often provides a separate mobile or desktop application. This is especially popular for cars and luxury items, which are rarely purchased without a lot of thought and consideration.
Immersive apps are also important to mention. The key technologies to consider are VR and AR. For example, a VR product configurator will deliver a level of immersion and interaction that can only be topped by physically handling a product. With the right headset and software, users can see a car as if they were standing right next to it, get inside, and interact with it very realistically.
An AR product configurator also offers a lot of benefits, including letting users visualize the car in their garage, driveway, or another location. Unlike VR, AR apps can run on nearly all smartphones, and can even run in users’ web browsers through a technology known as WebAR. This means that you can deploy your AR configurator as a mobile app or make it available directly on your website.
Beyond the core components of a configurator (product model + customization menu), you have a lot of freedom to add cool and unique features. We recommend selecting them based on the type of product configurator you plan to make and its purpose. Let’s examine some of the most popular choices:
Product rotation and zoom. See an automobile from all angles and perhaps even peek inside at its internal components
Descriptions and explainers. The customization options and car builds can be accompanied by useful text that helps users make their choice.
Location-based content. You can add camera capture, GPS, and tracking features to your app to create a tailored experience for users depending on their location.
Performance data. You can provide performance data for each unique build of the vehicle, and add more in-depth data in configurators for cars still under development.
Support and purchase. Adding options to place an order or contact the support team should make it easier for users to make informed choices and more likely to choose your product.
How to Start Developing the Unreal Engine Car Configurator
The main thing you will need to build the application is a team of developers and other assorted specialists (modelers, QA engineers, project managers, etc.). Beyond that, you will need to equip everyone with the right software and hardware to see the project to completion.
If your company does not develop software regularly, you may be feeling conflicted about hiring all these specialists when you lack the experience and expertise to guide them properly. Don’t worry, there is another solution – just hire another company to complete the project for you!
Program-Ace is one of the leading companies in the field of configurator development, and we have decades of experience in creating product-focused solutions, including a gorgeous real-time car configurator.