Expert Blog

Motoring’s new reality

Brace yourself. Virtual reality is incoming. Of course, the idea of strapping a gizmo to people’s heads so that they can experience a world other than their own has been around for decades. But, generally speaking, the technology has failed to live up to the promise – until now. The end of this month sees the release of the Oculus Rift, a headset that, it is hoped, will bring quality VR to the masses. Other headsets will follow soon afterwards.

In anticipation of this moment, much has been written about how VR will revolutionise the arts. Computer games will become more immersive. We might be able to stand alongside the Avengers in their latest blockbuster. But what about the other applications of VR? We’re interested in motoring on this blog, and VR can certainly be put to use there. Just imagine if, instead of worrying about whether his automotive skills have depreciated since he passed his driving 30-odd years ago, our contributor Mark Simpson could simply take a top-up test, from his home, every day. Virtual reality can make that possible.

In truth, just like the concept of virtual reality itself, the use of computer simulations to teach people to drive has also been around for decades. The basic technology is much like the racing games in amusement arcades – people are sat in a replica of a car’s driving seat, in front of a screen that shows the open road – but it has become more sophisticated over time. The latest models, such as those made by Virtual Driver Interactive, are all widescreens and high definition. They look pretty fun, as well as informative.

And, most importantly, they really do work. Practice simulations have been shown to improve drivers’ skills and therefore make the roads safer. As this article about the use of simulators in America observes:

‘Driving simulators were placed in 147 Georgia high schools between 2005 and 2007. Since the simulators and updated driving program were implemented, there has been a statewide decline in teen auto fatalities of around 60 percent or 181 student lives a year.’

So what do the new virtual reality headsets offer that these existing simulators do not? Why should we be excited about them? For starters, they are much less expensive. The Oculus Rift costs around £500, which, whilst not exactly cheap, is much less than the several (rising to tens of) £1,000s that a driving simulator will set you back. And that’s just the first thing to come off this nascent industry’s production line. Future headsets will surely be cheaper, putting this technology and its benefits in reach of most consumers.

What’s more, companies are already developing the software to turn your Oculus Rift – or HTC Vive or PlayStation VR or whatever comes next – into a form of driving simulator. Toyota has made a programme that replicates the experience of driving with distractions, so that new drivers know better what to expect when they leave their L-plates behind. Want to see what it’s like to drive in heavy snow? Or how to react when a deer leaps out into the road? Or the best way to pull out of a skid? Soon, no doubt, there will be an app for that.

Some developers are already using VR in this way themselves, to create other innovations. This case study describes the efforts of researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University to design heads-up displays that will help drivers to avoid collisions. In order to test their work across various motoring conditions, from blinding sunlight to thick fog, they are doing much of it within a virtual reality. It exemplifies how new technology can beget new technology: the effects of VR will be felt by motorists even when they’re not wearing a headset. 

But it’s not just research and learning. VR has other applications for motorists. Some of these are practical, such as the virtual test drives that Audi is currently developing, and other car manufacturers will surely copy. Others are more fun. One production company has already taken to filming VR car reviews, so that we, the people, can sit in the front passenger seat of a car as it’s hurled around the corners of a test track. You can get a sense of those reviews here. They’re really quite something.          

Watching those videos, the possibilities seem almost boundless. Forget modern cars for a second, and imagine being able to experience the judders and shakes of a Ford Model T, or the sinuous curves of a Porsche 550. For this is what virtual reality is: a wonderful meeting point of technology and imagination. Motoring has a new dimension. 

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