People spend a lot of time as passengers, and with self-driving cars, it’s expected we might spend even more. A new German venture, Holoride, has partnered with Audi to produce a VR experience for car passengers, hoping for an alternative to today’s choices to keep people — particularly children — occupied in the back seat.
To do this, they have interfaced an HTC Vive Flow VR headset via bluetooth with newer model Audi vehicles which transmit information on the car’s acceleration, location, movements and turning angle to the headset. This allows the headset to spin the VR world to match how the car is driving. When you’re in the game, if the car turns, your world turns. If the car speeds up, your movement in the world speeds up.
While all VR headsets track movement using accelerometers, gyros and camera tracking of the environment, the camera tracking has problems when inside a car, since the car moves differently from the outside world. Using car data makes that more accurate and lower latency. All this is pretty important, because if your internal senses of balance and acceleration don’t match what you see, you’ll get sick. Many people already get a bit queasy when there are any flaws in VR tracking — and a few can’t handle VR well at all.
As a result, your game can’t really control your motion — that’s up to the driver. The player can control things relative to the base movements. The initial release (in Germany only) comes with a sample game, “Cloudbreakers: Leaving Haven” where one plays the pilot of a robot fighting off attackers. Your robot is constrained to rails you see in the game. The rails show where you’re going and turn when the car is turning.
I got a chance to try the headset and the game on suburban streets. As the game requires the new Audi model available only in Germany, my experience used a developer box which mimics the new car and provides most of the experience.
I’m not a heavy duty gamer, so I can’t provide an expert review of the gameplay, though I didn’t find it particularly inspiring. I do expect better games will come. Largely the system worked, and the movements of the car felt reasonably natural in the gameplay. Most importantly, I did not feel VR sickness.
Later, we switched to another mode where your phone is mirrored into your VR world. The phone becomes a screen in front of you, where you can play videos. It is overlayed on a background which moves and turns with the car. Unfortunately, this did trigger some VR sickness in me, mild at first, but stronger later. I suspect I would prefer to do what most people do already, namely stare at the phone in my hand. Of course, a lot of people get queasy doing that, though there are techniques to lessen it. Holoride claims their research shows people get less queasy with their system than they do trying to stare at a phone held in their lap.
The system does not currently sense or compensate for bumps and shaking, only steering, speed and navigation. The unit pre-loads a map so it can anticipate turns in the production version.
The new Vive glasses are light and easy to wear. They come with a safety strap to stop them from flying off in a crash, though I suspect most people won’t put it on.
Who will use this?
VR isolates you entirely from the world. As such, I don’t think adults would be heavy users of this system, since adults tend to engage with the driver. This might change in a robocar, or if you have multiplayer games so that everyone can be in the game together. Adults will probably stick to what they do now — stare at their phones.
Prior to that the best market is teens in the back seat with a parent driving. This is hardly new — kids have been watching headrest screens and playing with handheld gaming decks and tablets for a very long time now, it’s almost the norm for significant trips. It’s reasonable to assume they might play VR games if they don’t get queasy, at least for some of the time.
The kit is 700 Euros, including one year of subscription to the platform, which is 20 Euros/month after that, so not cheap. New Audi not included! It includes the headset and a branded fairly standard gamepad. The pad is fine but it’s worth nothing that seated in a car, some of the more advanced features of VR that involve walking around, spinning in your seat and swinging your hands and arms will not be practical in a car. Gamepads are usually a bit more cumbersome in VR because you can’t see the buttons, though most players get to know them by feel.
It may be interesting to see this in other environments, such as aircraft and ships. Aircraft bank to make you less aware of their movements, so they are usually only noticed at lower altitudes so this may not be that valuable. On a ship, it would be important for VR to compensate for any sea swell. Almost 20 years ago, I proposed cruise ships put video displays in inside cabins to show the movement of the ship, since staring at the real horizon is a well known cure for seasickness This has since come to pass on many ships. It’s possible that well one VR might help cure, rather than cause motion sickness, as well as offer an entertainment during days at sea. They could possibly turn rough seas into something fun with some research.