If you thought that pretty much everything has been done when it comes to driving experiences, think again. BMW has come up with a great idea, which combines its M Mixed Reality technology with driving its fabulous new 3-litre, twin turbo, 453 horsepower M2 sports car.
What you get here is a clever mashup, where real word driving skills go hand-in-hand with a virtual experience. Which is remarkably unlike anything else that’s currently out there. It’s rather good, to put it mildly.
The system has been plumbed into the prototype car located at BMW’s M Driving Academy, which is situated on part of the largely-disused Fürstenfeldbruck military air base. Which is less than an hour from the automaker’s Munich headquarters.
This requires the driver to don a pro-grade Varjo XR-3 virtual reality (VR) headset, while a four-point harness is used to tightly secure you in the driver's seat. BMW isn't taking any chances where safety is concerned. It’s a very snug fit, which turns out to be mighty handy for handling the forthcoming tight, figure-eight track.
Meanwhile, located on the dashboard is a beefy stereoscopic camera unit. When everything is switched on and working, the setup delivers a wild combination of live video of the dash and steering wheel, supplemented by a brightly lit virtual racetrack.
BMW worked with Epic Games to develop the idea, utilizing the clever graphics and a large cocktail of cameras, lasers, GPS and Lidar tech. That means the end result looks incredibly tempting, and that’s before you’ve even rolled up to the start line.
While you definitely do get to drive in real time, there is someone next to you who also has access to a dual brake pedal in the event of anything not going quite to plan — just like your high school driver's ed classes.
Fortunately, since the drive takes places on a large, coned-off runway there’s not much likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake. In reality, the worst thing you can do is mow down some of the real-life traffic cones.
Once you’re in the car and have got yourself settled and harnessed in, it’s time to put on the VR headset and enter the next dimension. While you’ve still got the distinct feeling that you’re behind the wheel of a real car, viewing a virtual track for the first time is a little strange. The instructor explains the routine, which involves two laps of the track, though you have to take the first a little slower in order to get the hang of it.
Cleverly, the geofencing tech in the car allows you to navigate your way to the start line. The feeling is very much like being in the Mario Kart game. Not just because you have to navigate round a course, but also because you have to collect floating digital BMW coins that knock time off your lap in one second increments.
There are also large red barriers that need to be driven around, which add even more Mario Kart-style antics to the brief, but action-packed, journey. After getting the nod from the instructor and being primed by the starting line flashes – it’s ‘Go’ time!
The sensation is a little weird at first, but it takes no time to get into the swing of things. The lap doesn't seem particularly fast, as expected, and the hardest part is navigating the final bend while vacuuming up coins. Which proved to be a successful way to shave some seconds off our inevitably poor time.
Second time around and things are altogether more high-octane, especially once you’ve got the lines of the track right and the car starts to feel more familiar. Sure, getting around those tight turns is still tricky, but the BMW M2 sports coupe is such a great car that the task is made much easier.
The question is, does this brilliant idea have any real-world potential? Or is it purely a fun idea that lets you put the new BMW M2 through its paces at the same time? The German automaker reckons the setup could certainly help drivers in the future, especially as technology in cars becomes ever more prevalent.
For example, it could prove to be an excellent driver training tool, both for race car drivers or for improving everyday driving skills. We all face having to get used to the incoming waves of head-up displays and other increasingly advanced in-car tech, and this way takes you off public roads in the process. Failing that, it could just be used for fun at locations like the BMW driving academy.
Of course, as is the case with any other VR experience, the clumsiest part of the process is having to wear the headset. There’s quite a lot of system plumbing in and around the car too, but overall it’s never enough to become annoying. This being a high-end headset, it’s actually a great fit and isn’t too intrusive either.
Nevertheless, if they can eventually hook this system into the best VR headsets that ditch a lot of the bulk then it’ll be a very good day indeed.