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BMW Games Reality With A Virtual Driving Game On A Real Track, In A Real Car

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Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany: BMW’s boffins have turned the M2 mini-muscle car into the best gaming simulator in the world, with the M Mixed Reality virtual reality system.

BMW has effectively created a virtual-reality game you can play while actually driving the M2.

Drivers wear the latest-generation Virtual Reality goggles to drive the M2 around a virtual racetrack, while picking up coins and avoiding virtual obstacles, all while actually hammering the BMW M2 around a track.

Unlike some SIM games, there’s no nausea because the car’s movements are minutely copied in the M Mixed Reality game, though BMW carries sick bags in the M2. Just in case.

Developed with Epic Games and shown as a concept at the 2022 Web Summit in Lisbon this year, the M Mixed Reality effectively turns the M2 into the game controller, elevating SIMs to a whole new level.

Of course, the system needs a strictly controlled area, like the ex-German military airfield at Fürstenfeldbruck, so the M2 doesn’t have anything to hit.

“Anyone who asks what virtual experiences in the automotive sector might look like in future: That is the answer,” BMW M CEO Frank van Meel said.

“People must be able to experience this new feeling and with M Mixed Reality, we offer them a suitable solution for this.

“At BMW M, we have always been testing the limits of what is technically feasible and thus, among other things, laying the foundation for new immersive experiences,” he said.

The “Driving” Experience

The black BMW M2 looks like any other track-spec M2 as you approach it. It runs standard brakes and road tyres and has lairy vinyl stickers all over it, and it takes a second look to see the four-point harnesses and extra hardware inside.

The M2 has a forward-facing camera as standard equipment, but M and Epic Games have tapped into this and built on it, with more cameras everywhere.

The hardware is a Art Smarttrack system attached by suction cups to the windscreen, with stereo cameras to track the driver’s head movement, combined with a seven-camera Art Vix R3T3 VR headset.

The hardware is wired into the car, so all the driver’s own inputs become the game’s inputs.

And just like that, the headset is switched on and the daytime scene at a cold German airfield becomes night time in what looks like a Japanese city.

Everywhere you look, there is the perfect simulation of a neon-rich city full of skyscrapers and bridges, and my co-driver (who has his own emergency brake pedal, and no VR headset) tells me to move in to the start gate.

And there is an actual start gate, which is geofenced, with the display showing precisely where to go, and then it gives a countdown and he tells me to attack a timed lap.

It’s a leap of faith to expect the lit-up racetrack in front of you, complete with red-and-white ripple strips and armco, to be there when you get there.

It’s another leap of faith to expect the elongated figure-eight track to keep you on the actual airfield tarmac, but BMW assures me it has all been mapped accurately.

Turns out, it has.

Given that this is very much a “damage on” game, we ease out on our first lap, and it’s already amazing.

Every time you tilt your head, the game reacts and the vision reacts, within milliseconds. It’s close enough that the nausea-inducing parts of your brain don’t notice the difference.

It’s also accurate. The ripple strips are there. You feel them through the steering wheel and the suspension.

The ripple strips are, actually, so much there that nobody dares try out the armco barriers.

Then there are the coins. They move around and the more you collect, like in so many games before it, the more seconds you slash off your lap time.

BMW combines this with a series of barrier gates, and one of them flashes red at the last instant, forcing you to flick the M2 into the other one, even as you prepare the car for the bends.

Sighter lap done, and we attack the next lap from the start, with full wheelspin that, actually, feels like an M2 with full wheelspin, and it whips through the quicker bends, dinging the coins into the virtual wallet more rapidly now.

The airfield is so slippery that it takes a full brake stomp to pull it down from 140km/h to make the tight hairpin at the top of the circuit, and then we’re flicking left to right to make the “windows” before the full-throttle crossover part of the figure-of-eight.

And then we pull up in the box, check the time and take off the headset, somewhat in shock that this whole thing, actually, works.

It feels like the sort of thing where a lot of things could go wrong, and you can’t help imagining the looks on the faces of the insurance people when BMW suggested it.

It’s brilliant.

Real-world applications

Besides showing off how far gaming has come, and that the VR nausea problems can be overcome, BMW plans to use the M Mixed Reality system in driver training, first and foremost.

The days of setting out road cones and hosing down tracks could be coming to a close at BMW’s driver training days.

It can simply arrive at any racetrack or airstrip or even deserted shopping centre car park and map it, then click on whatever gaming scenario fits into the physical reality.

From there, it can randomly pop up with hazards to be avoided, or it can keep coming up with the right type of corner to match the lessons being taught to its drivers.

And there’s nothing to hit, nothing to damage the cars and nothing to damage its drivers.

And it can simulate any situation, so it’s also useful for BMW’s own developers to figure out corner cases for its driver-assistance systems and looming Level 3 self-driving systems.

The in-car hardware is similar to what it uses in testing, while the headset is similar to what BMW’s engineers and designers use when they’re developing cars, so there’s nothing weird for the BMW purchasing people to sign off on.

Right now, they’re talking about about “more than US$10,000” a car, but that price is coming down all the time, especially because it’s prototype gaming software.

But it could be a lot cheaper in even a small production run.

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