I’ve been playing videogames since the days of Atari and am no stranger to the metaverse. But there was something odd and unnerving about slipping on a virtual reality headset while sitting in the driver’s seat of a 2023 BMW M2.
I’d come to Germany, a few weeks back, to check out some of the new technology BMW plans to show off at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show. But the only way to understand what the Bavarian automaker’s M Mixed Reality system was like required me to drive blind.
Well, not entirely. Parked out on a corner of the M Driving Academy, a former NATO airbase in the Munich suburb of Maisach, I was given the chance to pilot the M2 around a track while wearing a VR headset that completely cut me off from the real world.
Not that this was an entirely unwelcome idea. The cold and gloomy weather that socks in much of Bavaria this time of year had already settled in. Fog and a gentle drizzle made it difficult to see the nearby Alpine foothills and, if nothing else, I was happy to get inside the coupe with its heater blasting.
Shifting into gear
But I was still unprepared for what was to come.
My co-pilot — my very brave co-pilot, BMW engineer Alex Kuttner — helped me strap in using a four-point seatbelt then slipped onto my head a VR headset similar to devices like the Occulus that fans of the metaverse have become familiar with. For a moment there was nothing. Then I was guided through a brief orientation process to let it track my head and eye movements, making sure everything was synched up. And, suddenly, my world transformed.
It was as if I’d been transported to another, seemingly real but very different world. Before me lay a figure-eight race track with buildings, bright lights, guard rails and even floating BMW rondels, With both the assistance of my human guide and a virtual female urging me on, I reached for the gearshift lever — the entire M2 interior reproduced in my headset — and shifted into Drive.
I’ve played Forza and other racing videogames, and tried my hand at F1 simulators before. The challenge is always recreating the very distinctive feeling of actually driving. Here, however, I was sitting at the controls of a very real BMW M2, with a solid 452 horsepower at the command of my right foot, and a steering wheel in my hands.
I have to admit that it was both daunting and empowering to feel the coupe respond as I gingerly tapped the right pedal and nudged the M2 into a virtual launch box, where I waited for a neon-bright gate to lift, setting me free on the artificial track.
“Three-two-one. GO!” Suddenly, the barrier vanished and I was off. Slowly, at first, getting a feel of what it’s like for the eyes to be in one, virtual world, the body — and car — to be in another. That was the “Mixed” part of the reality BMW had carefully crafted.
Those pesky rondels
As I navigated through the course, new barriers popped up, walls dividing the track in half and requiring me to quickly steer around them. Meanwhile, those floating BMW rondels also came into view, my co-pilot suggesting I clip them, much as I might in a videogame.
I’ve attended many a driving academy over the years and, in some ways, this was a familiar process. After my first lap I was given the green light to speed up. By then, my initial trepidations vanished and I was ready to give it a go. I initially floored the throttle but quickly was reminded that I was actually driving a real M2 as I entered a corner too fast. I could see myself sliding towards an artificial wall, my body letting me know the coupe really was going into a drift. I eased back on the throttle and focused on clipping those pesky rondels.
After a few more laps my driver pointed me to a parking spot, disabled the headset and lifted it off my head. It was not only a momentarily disorienting, but also a disappointing, moment. The bright metaverse vanished and the gloom of a cold, drizzly afternoon in Bavaria returned.
To what purpose?
A joint project of BMW and Epic Games, the M Mixed Reality technology was first shown off at the 2022 Web Summit in Lisbon last month, and I was pleased to become one of the first journalists to test it out in the real — well, mixed reality — world.
The VR headset itself was the best I’ve yet used, with none of the latency normally experienced with the technology. That lag time between what you see and what your body physically experiences can be quite unsettling and has made more than a few users experience severe nausea. The BMW/Epic system is perfectly synched up and made me feel completely comfortable while using it after only a few seconds in its artificial environment.
Ever since the first VR goggles were introduced the question has been “to what purpose?”
A potentially useful technology
“Anyone who asks what virtual experiences in the automotive sector might look like in future: That is the answer,” BMW M CEO Frank van Meel said while presenting the technology at the Web Summit.
BMW sees an opportunity to use the M Mixed Reality system to train professional race drivers. It’s a more immersive experience than a traditional simulator and could allow the virtual recreation of any track given enough space on, say, an old airbase’s tarmac. With the touch of a keypad, virtual competitors, barriers and other objects could also be safely introduced,
Of course, BMW might yet come up with other alternatives, perhaps assisting mechanics, engineers, factory workers and others to get a feel for their jobs, or even to design new vehicles out of thin air.
As for me, I’d just like to return to that brightly lit race track. I missed a few of those BMW rondels and look forward to grabbing them the next time I have the chance.