Sim Racing was supposed to be the perfect application for Virtual Reality headsets. In fact, only a short period of time ago, gamers were pestering developers such as Kunos Simulazioni by the hundreds to implement VR support into the modern lineup of racing simulators, convinced this new technology would be a complete game-changer, and serve as the missing piece of the puzzle when it came to people who loved sim racing, but couldn’t extract every last bit of the car’s performance from just a stationary monitor. The VR Mafia made a very cohesive push to ensure compatibility was one of the highest priorities for all major sim racing developers, but now that these products are available on store shelves, things haven’t gone according to plan. Stefano Casillo’s initial comments on the subject of virtual reality have now been completely justified – not everyone is seeing the light.
I don’t want to paint every single VR user as being let down with the product, but there’s a very peculiar thread inside the Sim Racing Subreddit which details one user’s journey into the world of Virtual Reality, and his subsequent dissatisfaction with the allegedly revolutionary technology. A forum user going by the screen name eecsasdf claims his recent acquisition of the Oculus Rift has not made auto racing in a virtual environment any more instinctive than it had previously been with a standard monitor.
Unfortunately, we can’t see lap times or any fancy data like that, so there’s a real chance this guy might just suck at the game, but in this case, his on-track performance might not actually matter. The use of the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets within sim racing was seen primarily as a way to increase the personal immersion factor for each individual user, and help to control the car in a more instinctive manner. eecsasdf says the expensive device has done practically nothing to improve the virtual driving experience, claiming the sense of speed still isn’t there – and thus has let him down to an extent. This is a pretty big deal, considering racing simulators were the most practical application for virtual reality headsets, potentially attracting those not quite fond of hardcore driving games into maybe checking out Assetto Corsa or Project CARS – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but now it appears that the “magic” some expected simply isn’t there.
I wouldn’t chalk this up to a racing simulator’s inherent lack of danger, but rather how little of a benefit you’re earning by being granted complete control of your camera view via the use of a VR headset.
In my experience with the Oculus Rift DK2 from a session at my bro’s house sometime last year, I found it neat that I could truly look past the A-pillar towards the apex, or shoulder-check to keep an eye on a car beside me, but that’s basically where the novelty ended. I didn’t feel it was the revolutionary experience the fanboys were hyping it up to be, but rather a piece of technology that offered some optional benefits under certain circumstances. I mean, it was really cool to take turn one at Circuit of the Americas by physically looking to the turning pole as I came up the hill, but it’s not like I was bad at the circuit to begin with, and couldn’t make the corner without wearing the Oculus. And during a practice session at USA Speedway in the Sportsman Late Models, it was indeed neat that I could look out the side window at my own discretion to monitor an opponent’s position – and it was my head making the movements, but this wasn’t some groundbreaking innovation which totally changed how I approached a random iRacing practice session.
It’s a lot less exciting than the YouTube videos make it seem. In fact, I actually enjoy watching YouTube videos of the Rift in action more than using the headset myself – you don’t notice how much your head is moving when actually playing the game.
However, what I’ve noticed about eecsasdf’s post, is that he immediately thinks the solution to his problem is to buy more random gadgets, as if this is a type of algebraic formula. The Oculus Rift didn’t generate the immersive experience he was looking for, so now he wants a Buttkicker audio system, custom brake pedal, and even entertains the idea of a motion simulator, which is a bit… Pricey to say the least. And I think this goes to show that some sim racers are barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. You’re quickly surpassing almost a few thousand dollars in hardware to play a $40 video game – some of which still appear to be straight out of 2005.
If you’re looking for an immersive sim racing experience, you’re not going to get it – ever. These games are a tool, first and foremost. Some of ’em are way off in terms of physics, and others are unfinished, but they are designed to help teach you real world car control techniques in a variety of situations, so you get it right the first time when your ass is in the seat of the real thing. isiMotor titles won’t have the visual fidelity of a Crytek product, and iRacing will never be as chaotic or intense as a Battlefield release on the Frostbyte engine. Even if you’ve got the absolute perfect setup, one where your OCD finally says “I’m satisfied with what’s in front of me”, there’s only so much a product like rFactor 2 or Assetto Corsa can do on the software side of things. This isn’t a knock towards Kunos or ISI – sim racers think the Oculus Rift will produce some sort of Michael Bay-like visual orgasm inside the headset, and in reality, they’re just playing the same racing simulator they’ve always played, only now they’re using a really fancy head tracking device.
If a sim racer can’t hit his marks in Project CARS, or he has a bit of difficulty getting the line right at Brands Hatch in Assetto Corsa, Virtual Reality isn’t going to change anything. Sure, they’ll marvel at being able to look around the environment a bit, and maybe have one or two moments where they can use the technology to monitor an opponent in an important bend, but this whole thing people have where they think the entire experience will be revolutionized in an instant? Not gonna happen. So I think in the coming weeks, and eventually months, comments like the post left by eecsasdf will become the norm. There are elements of Virtual Reality technology that provide a huge advantage for virtual drivers, but it’s just not the complete jump in immersion people were expecting.