Virtual reality has exploded back onto the gaming scene after years in the wilderness. And modern VR headsets can deliver truly immersive experiences that go well beyond what is achievable on a traditional TV or monitor.
VR hardware is always being refined, as this is a market that can’t afford to sit still. As a result the latest iterations of products like the Oculus Rift and HTV Vive have helped make games even more engrossing.
But when it comes to convincing people that they are truly sitting in the cockpit of a supercar, drifting around deserted city streets or tearing around an iconic race track, there is still a long way to go.
So what are the latest VR driving games able to offer and are there any new developments on the horizon that will blur the line between reality and fantasy even further?
For driving game purists, Project Cars 2 is perhaps the best respected of the current cross-platform simulators. And with full VR support, it is one of the cheapest ways to get behind the wheel of the world’s most powerful vehicles.
As with all smart driving games, the way that virtual reality is harnessed in Project Cars 2 is ingrained in the design of the game. So no matter which headset or platform you pick, jumping into the action will not require lots of tedious fiddling.
Of course for simulator fans who want to tinker, it is possible to optimise the way the game handles VR in various ways. Don’t want lens flare to ruin your immersion? It can be deactivated. Annoyed at the way it replicates dirt smearing on the driver’s helmet visor when piloting an open-topped vehicle? This can be turned off too.
The length to which the developers have gone to consider weather effects and other factors that create the perfect illusion of actually driving in real cars on real tracks is amazing. But simulators like Project Cars 2 are not the only racers getting the VR treatment.
Still fondly remembered from the PS1 era, WipEout was revived for the PS4 with the Omega Collection released last year. Then in December, Sony announced that it is adding a VR update to the game, completely free of charge.
Footage taken from the add-on shows that anyone who has the PS VR headset will be in for a real treat. Not only will they be able to experience all of the tracks in the game as if they were piloting the anti-grav ships themselves, but they will also have access to 3D audio that will make it even more believable.
The icing on the cake is the addition of VR-exclusive craft that will not be available to anyone playing the base game without the headset attached.
Pushing The Envelope
Being able to see and hear a driving game as if you are actually a first-person participant in the race is one thing. But what about if your other senses could be engaged at the same time? There are some surprising products being developed which propose to do just that.
First up is ThermoReal, a system that combines real-world temperature changes with VR games so that players can feel the warmth of a car’s cockpit during the heat of a competition, sense the chill of the wind or even feel pain if they crash.
The flexible thermodynamic device (F-TED) being developed by ThermoReal can react on the fly to changes in games, all without any lag. So for fast-paced racing, it should be ideal.
It may still be a long way from hitting stores, but it has huge potential. It could even end up integrated with wearable items, such as gloves and trousers, which will bring driving games even closer to the realm of the real.
Next up is Project Nourished, an augmented experience which replicates the tastes and smells of objects without actually requiring users to be in the same room as them. It sounds weird and wacky, but apparently this can be achieved using molecular tech. And for VR gaming, there are lots of prospective applications.
Fancy the idea of being able to smell the petrol fumes, burning rubber, leather seats, engine oil and even the pine tree air freshener in a virtual car? Project Nourished could theoretically bring this to life. It mixes a VR headset with an aromatic diffuser which conjures up the smells, along with an extra device that simulates chewing without requiring the user to move their mouth.
As bizarre as this seems at the moment, the trajectory of VR tech is definitely heading in this direction. And for driving game enthusiasts with an unquenchable thirst for realism, the future is looking very bright indeed.