Nestled in a small industrial park just outside of Portland, Oregon, is a virtual-reality company by the name of VR Motion. Catering to racing drivers, truckers, law enforcement, and student drivers, this company is the product of three dedicated men, all with different backgrounds, but brought together by their shared love of motorsport. They’ve established this company with one simple aim: to try and improve the public’s driving ability without having to step into an actual car.
Keith Maher grew up in Ireland playing with automobiles — his father was a mechanic — and became a diehard Formula 1 fan later in life. As the former Senior Technology Engineer at Intel, he grew restless and started contemplating his own VR side project — one which combined his love of automobiles and computers.
The immersive experience that VR uniquely offers has been proven to allow for faster, deeper learning and can actually create muscle memory far better than traditional methods. — Keith Maher
This side project, known as Gym for Drivers, was what introduced Maher to Dominic Dobson, who used the technology to prepare for his own foray at Pikes Peak in 2015. This VR training brought Dobson considerable success and opened his eyes to the potential this technology held. Soon, he and Maher started pushing the company forward; Maher re-incorporating his Gym for Drivers, and Dobson coming onboard as the COO.
The third link, Matthew Plavcan, comes from a background in hardware and software development. Prior to working with VR Motion, his role with Intel in microprocessor design linked him with Maher, who offered him access to the simulator. Plavcan, an avid Spec Miata racer, also used the technology to train for a race weekend.
Like Dobson, he was deeply impressed by the experience and signed on. As the CTO, Plavcan writes software code. He’s quite disciplined when it comes to testing, and his standards help ensure a quality product. “If you don’t test it, it doesn’t work,” he adds. Additionally, Plavcan outsources some of the development to ancillary companies.
Soon, they started writing the software — the physics, the engine, and the scenarios — and then sought out additional help from third parties in constructing their virtual world. “The content creators are doing such a good job these days, we can also take third-party content and put it in on top of our core code,” Maher adds.
More than a detailed world, Maher, Dobson, and Plavcan have emphasized an accurate physics system. “To create a true simulator; to predict what someone’s going to do in the future, you need to make a very accurate model,” Maher begins. While some gaming companies focus on glitzy aesthetics at the expense of a realistic interface, VR Motion strives to emphasize realism over gleaming surfaces. Nevertheless, the environment is pleasing to the eye and believable.
They’ve found that, with an accurate model on-hand, they reduce the difference between the predicted and actual driving experiences. With a very accurate vehicle model, and an accurately mapped road — the latter often made realistic with Lidar scanners — they can ensure useful preparation for the task. In fact, their models are so accurate, that any cause in dissimilarity between the virtual and actual driving experiences comes down to two reasons: either the physical model (the course itself) has changed somewhat, or the driver is doing something differently in the actual car.
The current CXC Motion Pro II simulator system brings some choice brands together to provide a fully-immersive experience. CXC, a firm out of Los Angeles, provides all of the hardware: the white-labeled rig, which is comprised of the physical seat, stepper motors, steering wheel, pedals, and the HTC Vive Pro headset. Intel provides the Core i7 hardware/CPU, as well as the continual updates. VR Motion then installs its own software. They’re aiming to become completely hardware agnostic eventually, but can currently run several well-developed headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.
The seat is electrically supported by its motion base, which provides two axes of motion using two high-speed linear actuators. Body lean, brake-dive, and acceleration-squat are all subtly replicated through movement of the seat, and those realistic movements help contribute to complete immersion. Force-feedback through the steering wheel helps here, too; the simulated caster force straightens the wheel when the lock is dialed-in and sends vibrations through the wheel at appropriate times.
As mentioned earlier, Dobson signed on after testing the equipment in anticipation for Pikes Peak, where he would go on to win the Unlimited Class first time out. Though Dobson’s experience in IndyCars and Porsche 962s laid the foundation for the V8-powered, 1,500-pound Radical, familiarizing himself with the 156 turns and real-world surface of the course would require a lot of studying.
It’s difficult to find the time and money to go and test in Colorado Springs, especially as Dobson was running on a comparatively modest budget with a tight schedule. Additionally, real-life practice is restricted to different thirds of the course in the days preceding the race. The VR experience helped to string together those three sections, as well as understand every pockmark, crown, rut, and camber on the 12.4-mile course.
After Dobson’s 22 simulated runs, Maher predicted he would be able to make it to the top in just 10.25 minutes. Dobson came quite close to the predicted time — beating it by 10 seconds! He snagged both the Unlimited class win and Rookie of the Year award — which he credits largely to VR Motion and the detailed experience it offered.
“Training in the simulator was like taking runs up the mountain in the real car. It allowed me to learn the course and build muscle memory thanks to the immersive nature of VR. After 22 simulated runs, I knew exactly which corners I could maintain speed through and which I had to slow down for,” adds Dobson.
Enamored with the experience, Dobson brought his protégé on for some training of his own. Andrew Evans, a young hot-shoe currently competing in LMP3, used VR Motion to familiarize himself with Laguna Seca prior to his Formula Ford 2000 series finale.
Evans drove south from Sammamish, Washington, to Hillsboro, where VR Motion uploaded his car as well as the famous climbs and descents of Laguna Seca. Over the course of four days, Evans familiarized himself with the track by learning lines, passing locations, braking points, and the general surface texture, before flying south to Monterey to try the real thing.
After training with them, I broke the FF2000 track record and got Second at the SCCA National Runoffs. Since then, it’s a regular part of my driver training. — Andrew Evans
His preparation paid off. Evans qualified Second on the race weekend. Limited not by his track knowledge but a sub-par engine, Evans still managed to dice and duel with the leader and finish Second — which was enough for Evans to clinch the championship!
”Having never used Virtual Reality training before, I was blown away by how effective the VR Motion platform was for my racing career. My first experience was ahead of a Formula FF2000 race at Laguna Seca. After training with them, I broke the FF2000 track record and got Second at the SCCA National Runoffs. Since then, it’s a regular part of my driver training,” Evans elaborates.
The Universal Appeal
The fundamental appeal of VR Motion lies in its immersive technology. Complete immersion in the environment has been shown to “create muscle memory and improve memory retention — up to 30 percent over conventional simulation-training systems,” notes Dobson. This means a pupil will ingest 30-percent more information or learn the same amount of information 30-percent faster than someone using conventional means.
Training Truckers, Law Enforcement, and Young Drivers
The applications of this sort of training are not limited to the small pool of racing drivers. As of late, Dobson, Maher, and Plavcan have been focusing their efforts with VR Motion on areas outside of motorsport. Big rig drivers and police officers need specific driving skills, too, and the vehicles and training personnel needed are costly and time-consuming. VR Motion teaches all the skills needed, without any risk to the machinery, at a fraction of the cost of using actual vehicles.
To produce safe and competent drivers, they judge pupils on a wide variety of criteria depending on the application. Reaction time, stopping distance, lane-change duration, and the time needed to complete a course are all easily measurable. Subjective aspects are given a score based on more specific criteria, like adherence to the ideal speeds, proximity to the cones, and general accuracy. They also test car-control beyond the limit of adhesion; specifically understeer management, by assessing how the drivers control the inputs once the car is sliding, and whether they can gather a slide in a safe and rapid manner.
The tendency among young drivers to continue cranking on steering lock with the throttle depressed is a common cause of roadside incidents. To train the student-driver population, VR Motion puts the pupil in challenging situations without any real boulders or trees to hit.
Interested in the more practical applications of virtual-reality training, I tried my hand at the law enforcement driver training simulation. Here, I was not judged by the instructors on lap time, but safe driving, reactions to surprises, and my ability to multitask. While I felt I had it in the bag, the challenge would humble me.
Viewing the simulated world, the images are reasonably convincing, but not so realistic one would be confused. The dash is carefully copied, the interior laid out well, and while there were no computer-generated limbs before me, the display of the steering wheel moved in unison with the one in my hand. Glimpsing at the mirrors, the reflection would change appropriately as I tilted or turned my head. Looking over my shoulder, an accurately rendered backseat laid before me. After interacting with my virtual surroundings for a few seconds, it felt as if I were inside an actual Dodge Charger.
So much of the startlingly accurate experience is due to the visuals and the way they’re portrayed. Because the VR headset wraps completely around the head and padded headphones seal around the ears, it’s completely immersive. Thanks to a lightweight construction, the headset never feels cumbersome or distracting; quickly I was transported elsewhere. In fact, when removing it and returning to the real world, the experience was so convincing it took me a moment to recalibrate.
The movement of the seat, as well as the realistic responses, make you painfully aware of the Charger’s weight. Even braking performance is appropriate for an approximately 4,000-pound Dodge Charger. My last-ditch attempts to stop in the designated box were usually penalized with locked tires, which regained traction somewhat with some cadence braking. ABS can be simulated, but it wasn’t on this particular occasion.
This level of realism forced me change my approach; I was most certainly driving a four-door behemoth with all the roll and weight a real Charger would have. Slowing down my inputs and carefully balancing the car through the slalom, I managed a respectable time with only a few battered cones proving my lack of accuracy. Thinking this test would be a cinch with my driving experience, I was embarrassed to realize I didn’t quite have the coordination I thought I did, but I blamed it on skipping breakfast.
The challenge was doubled when they tested my ability to multitask. As visible/audible in the footage above, I was asked to navigate a slalom quickly and accurately while saying the color of the text appearing in my peripheral vision. The aim is to try and trick the overloaded student into saying the word — each of the words were written in different colors — instead of the color of the word. Though it sounds fairly simple, it’s surprisingly taxing, and a great way to sharpen focus.
We can create scenarios that you would never place a person into in real life, yet they may find themselves in at some point. — Keith Maher
Plans for the Future
Their goal is to produce a tool that can realistically predict how someone will drive in the real world while minimizing risk. However, they intend to go further than that. By replicating the environment accurately, and subjecting the client to a series of driving tests with real-world implications, they strive to be able to adjust insurance premiums with their own certifications.