Audi has harnessed the power of virtual reality (VR) to make a significant breakthrough in in-car entertainment. Working jointly with Disney, it synced the forward, backward, and lateral movements of a car with a VR-based video game to turn a run-of-the-mill ride to the grocery store into an immersive experience for the rear passengers. The company demonstrated a close-to-production version of its Audi Experience Ride technology on the sidelines of CES 2019, and Digital Trends was among the first to experience it first-hand.
The technology — which is marketed as a completely new form of entertainment — was developed by Holoride, a start-up that Audi co-founded and holds a stake in. It’s simple on paper, and yet it took four years to develop. At its core, Audi Experience Ride gathers basic, anonymous data about the car and its surroundings. It records the car’s steering angle, whether it’s accelerating or braking, the g forces going through the cabin, and GPS information.
Gathering this data requires no additional sensors; nearly every modern luxury car is already fitted with the required equipment. The data gets woven into the fabric of a VR-based video game to create an experience that’s both realistic and engaging.
Digital Trends participated in a demo of Audi Experience Drive at the Speed Vegas race track south of Las Vegas. We jumped in the back seat of an E-Tron, the firm’s newly-unveiled electric crossover, put on standard Oculus Rift VR glasses with integrated microphones, picked up a Nunchuck-like remote, and waited for our turn without the slightest idea of what to expect.
When our driver received the green light, the E-Tron took off with the silence and smoothness you expect from an electric car. He accelerated, braked, negotiated tight and wide turns, and hit speeds of up to 90 mph on the straight part of the track.
We may as well have been on a different planet.
We were immersed in outer space, where we helped Rocket Racoon and Iron Man blast asteroids into pieces while shooting lasers at attacking alien enemies. We ultimately destroyed their mothership. The three of us saved the galaxy, and we had a blast — if you’ll pardon our pun — doing it.
We were surprised at how accurately the car’s motions were mimicked by the game. It almost felt like being on a roller coaster that took us through a virtual world. When the E-Tron turned relatively slowly, our spaceship turned at the same angle, and with the same intensity. When the E-Tron made a sharp or sudden turn, the spaceship veered into a turn like a fighter jet on a critical mission. We felt the car’s braking and acceleration in the game, too. We didn’t get car-sick, but one of our colleagues admitted to feeling a little bit queasy after a five-minute ride.
Audi teamed up with Disney and Interactive Experiences to design the Marvel’s Avengers: Rocket’s Rescue Run game specifically for the CES demo we experienced. Holoride stresses it sees the technology as a blank canvas, a new platform that will hopefully inspire developers new and old to create more games. During the demonstration, we imagined how cool being immersed in a Mario-themed world would be. Audi Experience Ride would work exceptionally well with a game like Pokemon Go, too.
It’s not just about gaming. Nils Wollny, Audi’s head of digital business and the future CEO of Holoride, told Digital Trends the technology can be used for educational purposes. It can, for example, take students on a trip through the human body to learn about anatomy, or on a trip through time to see what living in Ancient Greece was like. Marine biologists can explore the murky depths of the ocean floor, botanists can take a trip through the jungle, and archaeologists can hang out with pharaohs. As of 2019 you have to be a passenger to experience Audi Experience Ride, but autonomous driving technology will create new possibilities in the coming years.
The more connected a car is, the more features Holoride can integrate into its VR technology. Wollny hinted he’d like to integrate traffic lights into the system. The technology would know the car is stopped at a light for 25 seconds, for example, and generate content accordingly.
Though Audi is playing a sizable role in bringing this technology to the market, Wollny told Digital Trends that Holoride plans to make the platform available to all carmakers and content developers. The technology is tentatively scheduled to hit the market in late 2020 or early 2021, he added. Pricing information hasn’t been announced yet.