They say you're not supposed to drive with your eyes closed, with good reason, but here I am doing it anyway.
I'm not technically blindfolded, but I might as well be. I'm sitting behind the wheel of an Audi A4 wearing a bulky virtual-reality headset, so I definitely can't see anything in front of me.
Nevertheless, I'm effectively driving in two places at once – on an empty test track next to the real Munich airport and on the roads of a small, nondescript town in some virtual environment. It's an odd sensation, moving about in an actual car that's synced to what my eyes and ears are experiencing through the headset.
I've just navigated around some virtual pylons and made a turn around a virtual roundabout when, suddenly, a bicyclist careens off the virtual road in front of me and crashes, off to my left. I can't help but rubberneck to watch bystanders rush to his aid. As bad luck would have it, out of the corner of my eye I catch a man with a stroller wander out in front of my speeding car.
In the real world, a human being might not have enough time to react. The A4 is equipped with Audi's "pre-sense" braking. A camera in the front of the car "sees" the stroller and applies the brakes automatically. The car jerks to a stop, saving me, the virtual man and his virtual baby from a potentially horrific – although virtual – accident.
The whole exercise isn't some weird video game, but rather a clever training tool designed by Audi. The specially modified A4 houses a computer in its trunk to power the Oculus Rift headset worn by the driver.
The device is programmed with the track's dimensions and synchronized with a host of sensors mounted in and around the car. The system as a whole allows virtual environments to substitute for the real world, which Audi engineers can use to demonstrate safety features without endangering drivers or pedestrians.
As valuable a training tool as VR may be, the company also sees big potential in it as a sales device. Over the next two to three years, the car maker plans to roll VR out to its showrooms, where it will serve as an informational system for potential buyers.
The company recently hosted 5,000 delegates and dealers from around the world, with each getting the same practical demonstration.
"It's very important that they experience the cars themselves and that we don't just show them PowerPoints," says Martin Schulze Beerhorst, of Audi's retail business development division. He punctuates his point with a joke: "All of them survived."
The system has been a hit with dealers so far, Beerhorst adds, to the extent that Audi is already working on a second-generation model. The next version will have sharper graphics and less lag in the headset so that the simulations will feel even more real.
In another demo at Audi offices near the test track, company officials demonstrate a Star Trek holodeck-like simulation with the HTC Vive headset, where wearers can view and walk around cars in three dimensions.
Audi has 52 vehicles programmed in, with the idea being that consumers can use the system to see what their purchases will look like close up in advance. They'll also be able to configure their tire, trims and colour selections so that there are no surprises when the vehicle finally arrives.
"We want to avoid people saying that it looks different in the catalogue, that they got a different car than they expected," says Marcus Kuehne, project lead for Audi's VR experience. "We're really optimistic about this technology."
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
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