As technological evolution continues to explode along an exponential trajectory, the boundary between real and computer-induced perception becomes increasingly blurred. Determining just how far this boundary can be penetrated to induce a state of total immersion — referred to as virtual reality — is the mission of this blog.
More specifically, can a simulated environment suspend disbelief to such an extent that the driver thinks his automotive experience is actually real in terms of visual, auditory, and haptic perceptions?
The key technical advance underscoring our confidence that this objective can be achieved today within the bounds of a DIY budget is the maturing development of virtual reality (VR) headsets. Introduced in the 1990s, early versions failed commercially due to severe limitations on functionality and visual acuity. The first product to overcome these early obstacles was the Oculus Rift with its beta version in 2013 and initial commercial release in 2016. Significant progress since then promises to deliver visual simulation at a level that hopefully “bypasses” the real/artificial mental barrier in 2021-22.
Fortunately, driving simulation is somewhat easier to address than some other VR domains like outdoor exploration, group interactions, or fantasy adventures. Why?
- a seated driver limits both the physical space and body movements that must be monitored and incorporated in software models; in fact, the seat and belt restraining system itself can provide excellent haptic simulation if they are identical to actual racing gear
- visual cues like road surfaces, cockpit instruments, and passing scenes, can be replicated with sufficient detail to insure immersion
- the acoustic environment is well documented — mostly road and engine noise — and reproduces well with consumer-level equipment
- driving is a solo activity in terms of human interaction; other vehicles on the road “interact” only within the realm of physics, not emotional complexity
- communication — when it exists at all — is straightforward and extremely rule-based (like racing starts and finishes)
- everyone knows what driving feels like; if the simulation matches the brain’s real-world memory then total immersion may emerge as a result
Apart from VR headset-related challenges, the most difficult aspect of driving simulation involves how we feel gravitational forces during acceleration, braking, and turning as well as our perception of steady speed (where there are no G-forces) and haptic triggers like the difference between smooth asphalt versus a gravel road. Force feedback effects become necessary to mirror real-world steering wheels, gear shifters, and pedals in addition to the importance of the tactile 3D feel of these controls on our hands and feet.
Since two-thirds of brain activity involves visual perception, we start this journey with an examination of visual simulation.
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