The Oculus headset just launched about two months ago now, with the HTC Vive backed by PC gaming giant Valve releasing right on its tail. Despite some production difficulties and other bumps in the road in getting machines to the consumers, gaming took a solid step forward into the realm of Virtual Reality. Many manufacturers have been taking the idea rather seriously, to the point where even Sony is making something exclusively for the PS4, and Samsung has had VR gear for its line of flagship cellphones for some time now.
There are several genres that can lend themselves as good matches to VR, but I personally am excited about the possibility of seeing a good racing simulator hit VR headsets.
We got an opportunity some time ago to send some interview questions down to Andy Tudor of Slightly Mad Studios, developer of Project CARS, a successfully crowdfunded racing simulator that released last year. With Project CARS being available on the Occulus Store from day one, we figured we could ask a few questions about racing simulators in VR and what the future of racing simulators are now that VR is a viable consumer technology.
TechRaptor: Can you introduce yourselves and Project CARS?
Andy: Hey there, I’m Andy Tudor, Creative Director at Slightly Mad Studios. Project CARS is a completely authentic racing game that was wholly crowdfunded and created by both racing fans and pro drivers who guided its direction and tested it throughout the entire development process. We launched back in May 2015, and the game has gone on to become the highest-rated racing game on PlayStation 4, the leading showcase for new technologies like VR and 12K, and the most successful racing Esport of all time.
TR: When one thinks of Virtual Reality/VR, several game genres come to mind depending on the person, but many could agree that racing simulators are a logical match, and your studio has answered that call with VR support for Project CARS launching on the Occulus Store day one. What makes you most excited about VR when applied to racing simulator games, not just from a player standpoint but also from a development standpoint?
Andy: From a player standpoint, it’s the final piece of the puzzle: now allowing you to be completely immersed in the cockpit using the most natural interfaces for driving: wheels & pedals, a racing seat, and a helmet. And additional spatial awareness that VR affords you makes you a better driver - you can judge upcoming corner distances better, you can turn your head into the apex, and you can glance left or right, or up at your rear-view mirror. So racing fans eager to take their game to the next level need to get a VR headset ;-)
From a development point of view too we all enjoy our gadgets, so we eagerly embraced VR as a new toy to play with. The fresh perspective it gave on the racing genre allowed us to explore new approaches to tropes we’ve always had in racing games. The technical requirements to run at a silky, comfortable framerate gave us the opportunity to make significant improvements to our core MADNESS engine, thereby making it more efficient for all titles we produce going forward.
TR: We have a number of unique controllers coming to VR headsets, including the Manus VR gloves. What would your ideal personal ideal controller setup be for a VR racing simulator? What would you like to see controller-wise that would fully take advantage of VR in a racing simulator, whether it is currently in development, or from a speculative standpoint?
Andy: The most natural interface for driving is a wheel - it always will be. But since your virtual hands are always present when driving from cockpit view, it’s fair to say that we’re exploring other solutions for ways to replicate what your real-world hands are doing within the game.
TR: Graphics are definitely an important part of a racing simulator—a decent frame rate on top of crisp visuals to allow you to know when an obstacle is coming and react in a timely manner, discern details that could serve as landmarks on the track (the tree from Laguna Seca's corkscrew comes to mind), or perhaps the raindrops on your windshield serving as nice extras to add to immersion during inclement weather. With the recommendation of 90 frames per second on the retail Oculus Rift setting the bar high for anyone already interested in VR, do you believe that meeting a smooth frame rate takes priority when it comes to graphics from a development standpoin,t or do immersive visuals take priority to solidify the racing experience when it comes to building a racing simulator such as Project CARS in VR?
Andy: It’s a balance of course ;-) When playing in VR, your brain is focusing on the items immediately around you - near-vicinity stuff like the wheel right in front of you, the enclosure of the cockpit, the dashboard, the immediate road ahead. Just like in real-life, you’re concentrating on tangible objects so we can afford some technical savings on both ‘far away' and ‘peripheral edge’ items that you’re really not aware of. So although, if you were to compare the VR version and ‘flatscreen’ version, you may see some fidelity differences between the two on distant mountains for example, there’s no discernible difference to your brain/eye when actually playing in VR.
TR: How has the community factored into your development of the VR version of Project CARS?
Andy: We’ve been working with Oculus ever since the first DK1 kits became available, so as soon as we enabled VR in Project CARS many of our community that had Kickstarter headsets also got to experience it too. They were key to providing feedback on what was a comfortable and immersive experience, what made them feel nauseous, and where performance needed to be improved. So together with this great testing team of passionate first-adopters we were able to fine-tune it all to make it a great experience.
TR: Do you see VR as becoming a standard feature for high profile racing simulators down the line?
Andy: I think it’s certainly hard to go back to a standard flat screen after experiencing it in VR ;-) It’s so natural that I definitely think we’ll see the traditional ‘triple screen’ setup affected in some way.
TR: A personal note of mine is that the sensation of speed is an important aspect of a racing simulator. After all, if I go fast, I want it to seem like I am. Do you believe the sensation of speed can be better achieved in VR as opposed to playing a racing simulator on a monitor or a TV?
Andy: Absolutely. The sense of depth you get in VR allows your brain to perceive motion much more accurately, so you definitely get a heightened sense of speed through VR. Having said that though, my hands still get sweaty when you’re absolutely on the limit trying to beat a friend’s time on a standard television. So that experience isn’t going away any time soon ;-)
TR: Many of these interview questions have addressed VR in racing simulator games. Do you see professional applications for VR in the racing circuit?
Andy: Totally, whether that’s a VR-specific driver education course, or it being adopted for pro drivers as a training tool we’re only just realising the possibilities now that we can all try it for ourselves and see what a huge leap it is for the gaming and sim world.
TR: Thanks for your time. We appreciate you answering our questions!