VIRTUAL REALITY HEADSETS FOR MOTION SIMULATORS:
A yet-to-mature technology with future potential
Virtual reality headsets are becoming so popular with driving games that Cruden is often asked why head mounted displays (HMDs) aren’t also used for professional driving simulators. This is a good question because an HMD should provide a more immersive experience than a simulator’s panel displays or projector displays. But there’s more to it than that.
For gamers, HMDs undeniably have their attractions. The act of wearing a headset sets the scene for some action; complete visual immersion in a virtual world is impressive and engaging; and it is a great novelty to be able to look around the virtual environment simply by turning your head. The wow factor of wearing a HMD is an enjoyable part of playing a game and being entertained.
For simulators, HMDs could have other advantages too. Being so much smaller than screens or projectors, they’re more portable. And because none of the cockpit has to be built with real-world hardware, but is entirely virtual, HMDs could make it possible to easily and quickly switch from one cockpit layout to another. This could usefully give a driver access to a number of different vehicles or driving environments in the same working day.
Gaming technologies and commercial simulation technologies differ greatly, however, in their sophistication. Driving simulators, created to accurately reproduce cockpit controls and driving characteristics of real-world vehicles, have strict and specific demands that HMDs cannot yet satisfy.
One issue with HMDs is picture quality. When delight at the novelty of the HMD experience fades, it is too often replaced by the disappointing realisation that images being fed into the goggles aren’t of a high enough resolution. Current HMD image quality, determined by pixel density, simply isn’t high enough.
Another issue is that in the most common applications, HMDs blind the wearer from seeing anything of the real world, and that includes their hands, whose movements affect vehicle control. (It should be noted that exceptions are design studies as carried out by some of our automotive customers for HMI applications). It is true that hand movements can be correlated to game responses by physically connecting the user to haptic devices, such as gloves or a steering wheel incorporating sensors, but drivers of professional motorsport simulators prefer to glance at their real hands on the steering wheel, shift levers, and other cockpit controls. This is especially true in procedural training, for example where the driver needs to press certain buttons on the steering wheel.
These shortcomings reflect the fact that VR is still very new. But HMDs are being developed by capable and well-funded corporations, suggesting that in time the weaknesses will be fixed. It is probable that HMD image quality will one day be much better. It is even possible - though more of a stretch of the imagination - that virtual reality might one day be combined with augmented reality, so that the virtual images seen in an HMD are overlaid by real-world, real-time moving images (of the driver’s arms and hands).
One other challenge is that HMDs detect and respond only to the user’s head movements, whereas in a driving simulator the HMD will also be moved around by the motions of the simulator platform. This requires the application of technologies to identify the movements made by the platform rather than the user’s head and to compensate for them. (Here is a video of a recent internal demo.)
This is complex, achievable and is working on our motorcycle simulator development project (more on that in a later article!), which uses the Oculus Rift. The technology works well with a motorbike because there is no dashboard and the rider’s focus is on the outside world rather than the controls or the body. HMDs are a factor in our next Panthera Free simulator software upgrade as well.
We question the usability of current generation commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) HMDs on professional motorsport or automotive driver-in-the-loop simulators. We certainly wouldn't advise a high-end customer to equip their simulator with 'just' an Oculus Rift and nothing else.
Cruden regularly assesses latest VR and HMD technologies for their potential applications in commercial simulators. We are working on alternative HMD solutions that are suitable for the demands of our customers and as you can expect, we will be making them integratable options.
In reality, it’s the customer's own decision. If you don't want to take our word for it, please come and see for yourself!