Virtual reality is coming to the passenger seat near you, at least as long as you own an Audi vehicle with the brand’s latest operating system anyway. Audi’s spinoff, Holoride, announced this week that it will begin offering the Pioneer Pack for just under $700, which includes an HTC VIVE Flow headset, an 8BitDo Pro 2 Gamepad, and a year-long subscription to the Holoride platform, for those who own a 2023 Audi or newer (with the MIB 3 system). I got a quick taste of the strange VR experience in the car around my Los Angeles neighborhood and, despite a tendency toward motion sickness, managed to play a video game and watch some Netflix before heading out.
Like my cohort, who tried out the Holoride experience at CES 2019, I’m not a VR aficionado, although I’m fully on board (and regularly wear) AR glasses for work; The Nreal AR glasses I use have made a world of difference when I have to type out 10,000 words in a single day, resulting in much less computer fatigue and repetitive motion pain. So when the engineers at Holoride strapped the HTC Vive Flow headset to my face, it wasn’t an unfamiliar sensation, but it was far more visually restrictive than I’m comfortable with, especially in the backseat of a moving vehicle. The team handed me a familiar game controller, and we were off, despite my nerves about the possibility of getting sick in just a few minutes in the backseat of the BMW X5 the team was using for demo purposes.
When you first strap on, adjust the eyepiece on the HTC Vive Flow headset the same way you would adjust binocular diopters. I don’t wear glasses except when I read or work on the computer but had a hard time finding a reasonably clear image in the glasses. I don’t use my glasses when wearing the Nreals, but in retrospect I probably should have used them under the relatively light Holoride headset as the images never really came out super clear.
I tried Cloud breaker, a video game where you control a robot called Skyjack through floating scrap and AI sentries, collecting points and killing sentries as you go. When the car stopped, the movement in the VR space around me slowed down. As the car sped up, the sentries and scraps came at me much faster. As the car swerved, my point of view changed without delay.
The movement of the vehicle was mirrored in real time in the movement of the scrap, floating pillars and sentries in the game, which was developed by Schell Games. In whatever direction I looked, I could see the playing space stretching out in front of me (or behind me), thanks to the GPS data coming from the car. The mapping system feeds about a square kilometer of data to the headset (when you have GPS connectivity), according to the engineers I spoke with, so it can create these virtual worlds that match the physical one to prevent or mitigate motion sickness.
Since all the data is processed by the glasses, the visuals aren’t as stunning as some other non-car-based VR experiences, but they’re still vivid and three-dimensional enough to read text and see details of some of the characters.
Cloud breaker is quite intuitive. Pull something towards you, slash it a few times with a sword, or zap it with laser beams, and you get points. Don’t crash into a floating highlight or get too damaged by sentries, and the game will continue as you drive. I actually liked it so much that after I died I restarted and played the game a second time.
I was amazed at how easy it was to just jump right into the immersive experience, despite being driven around in the back seat of an SUV. My brain and body had no problem adjusting to the movement, and as long as I was focused on the game I didn’t feel a pang of nausea. I noticed on the rough, slow roads around my neighborhood that there was a somewhat disembodied feeling that I would experience when we drove over a bump or pothole. The game didn’t replicate that kind of vertical movement very well, though it never made me too uncomfortable.
The Netflix and YouTube experience
Everything changed when the engineers suggested I switch to YouTube and Netflix. The engineer next to me paired an Android phone with the headset and showed me how to access both platforms. Once there, I picked a random YouTube video to watch briefly, and for me the experience was almost downright uncomfortable.
The video screen is small and centered in the center of your vision, with a moving background in a soothing sky color that scrolls along behind the screen to help your body adjust to the car’s movements. After a few seconds of watching a short video, which was streamed from the paired Android phone to my headset, I started to feel dizzy as motion sickness began. I quickly switched to Netflix to get an idea of what that experience was like, and the motion sickness got worse. The longer I watched, the worse it got.
One thing I noticed before taking the headset off was that the lighter background that replicates the vehicle’s motion can make details in darker videos difficult to see. It’s a bit like watching a TV placed in front of a window, which can wash out colors and blur details.
The audio of both the video game and the videos came through the arms of the glasses for demonstration purposes, which gives the opportunity to hear other passengers in the car, but it does not necessarily provide the best audio experience. You can link HTC Vive Flow with other Bluetooth headsets to enhance the sound.
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