Posted on , by Rob

iRacing with the Oculus Rift

For those not in the loop, the Oculus Rift is a Kickstarter funded 3D virtual reality headset.  It's still in development, with the latest available "Dev Kit" version coming out in HD 1080p.  Their earlier, first dev kit, came with a resolution 1280x800 and it's that version I've been able to get my hands on. 

oculusriftOculus Rift is being retrofitted into a number of existing games, from Minecraft to FPS's such as Half Life 2.  The obvious candidate for virtual reality headsets are those game where the player is already sitting down and is fixed in position.  This removes one of the biggest obstacles to full immersion, the movement of the body.  The most natural candidate then are simulation games.  Games like iRacing, the premier motorsport simulation currently on the market. 

iRacing released full support for the Oculus Rift with the latest season update 5 weeks ago.  Over this last weekend I've had the opportunity to test the Oculus Rift with iRacing.  Prior to pairing these two I felt the Rift would have a few short comings, also expressed by others on the sim racing scene.  Particularly, will the inability to see my own hands make finding the H-shifter gear levers and various buttons on button boxes difficult?  And will the lack of not being able to see my real steering be a problem?  Given a single monitor in 1920x1080 has a poor field of view, would it be worse on the Rift?

I can answer those first two straight up. No.  When we drive cars we (hopefully) don't look down to change gear, and we don't normally when playing sim games either.  It was no different with the Oculus Rift.  Once I had located my physical controls muscle memory took over and I not once had a problem finding anything I wanted  Not being able to see the steering wheel in also no problem. I just turned on the in-game driving arms and wheel.

Starting the Game

iRacing will automatically detect the Rift. No need to change any settings anywhere.  I had my displays configured to run in extended mode, partially because this is the default and partially because the Oculus Rift team recommend this rather than cloned desktop.  As the game launches, if the Rift is detected a small dialog box will ask you if you want to run the Rift in full screen mode (I never said No, so I have no idea what happens if you do!).  Once you say yes, the game continues loading and you're taken into the garage.  A bit of advice for aligning the Rift: Make sure your head and Rift are in the desired racing position when you hit the "Yes" button and leave your body stationary until you're in the menu and the game as loaded.

A short-coming of Rift beta support games such as Half Life 2 is that menus and text don't work well.  iRacing doesn't have that problem although you do need to move your head around to see all the menu screen.  I expect this effect to be less pronounced on higher resolution versions of the device.

My first car to try out was a car I raced for 4 seasons on iRacing, the open wheeled Star Mazda, essentially a lower powered Formula 1 car.  Seated in the cockpit in the pits is a surreal experience at first.  I slid my body down a little in my chair and I was essentially completely aligned with my in-game representation.  I did a small systems check, moving the wheel rapidly left and right and my in game avatar responded with no latency.  A head check to the left and right and I could see my mirrors, and in them, the rear of my car and what was behind.  Turning my head further in either direction I could see the high sides of the cockpit.  While looking straight ahead my peripheral vision was fantastic.  The front wheels looked like they were actually a distance away, and I could see a gap between the back of my steering wheel and the dashboard. I was racing in a single seater in three dimensions for the first time!

As I sat there in the pits I got the feeling that if I moved my elbows a little I would be bang them on the side of the virtual fibreglass tub I was sitting in. 

Turn2sonomaPulling out of the pits at the Sonoma raceway, the orange bollards seemed much closet to my front right wheel than I remember.  I zapped up the hill, bap bap bap through the gears before downshifting into second for the right hander turn two. 

The exit of turn two drops down a hill, and as my car went down my stomach went up a little. I didn't expect that.  Then I turned left into turn 3 and my brain felt like it wanted to keep going right. I was perhaps a little disorientated.  Turn "3A" is atop a crest that drops pretty dramatically to the right, this is the highest point of the track.  At one point I couldn't see anything but sky as I relied on my track memory to get the steering and throttle inputs right and hope I was on track when I could see the black stuff. 

There is a reason why I picked Sonoma.  It's a track with a lot of elevation changes in a relatively short distance, rather like a roller coaster.

Back in my usual race car, the Mclaren MP4-12C, things weren't so dramatic.  It was definitely cool to look around the inside of my car, to see the roll-cage and the full dashboard and console, but the small windscreen made the experience underwhelming when compared to the open-wheel cars.  Still, it was probably better than triple monitors.

The Williams FW31 Formula 1 car was an eye opener.  The driving position is so low and all I could see were the high cockpit sides and the antennae in front of me.  The front of the car (nose) was basically at eye level.  I'd heard that F1 cars have a low seating position, but now I believe it.  I've played a lot of Formula 1 games over the last two and a half decades, including the most recent Codemasters F1 2012, but the driving position in this is nothing like any other game, or even like using the car on iRacing with monitors. 

I also had to try oval racing.  I don't own the top NASCAR, so I ran the Indycar instead.  Of course it had to be at Indianapolis.  The Indycar was awesome to sit it in, with a position much like the F1 car.  The only real difference being the position of the mirrors.  They seemed further back on the IndyCar.

It's not just me

I'm not the only one who found the experience amazing.  My wife, who in the past three years has played iRacing for maybe 5 minutes and her only response was "this is boring" had a go.  Once she put on the headset all I could hear was "oohh, ahhh,  eeek, oohohohoh." punctated by the occasional laugh. That is until she crashed.  The experience was so disorientating that she pulled the Rift from her head and stopped.

My brother also stopped by for a turn.  He had never played iRacing before and was equally impressed if not less vocal.  He used words like "even better than I expected and I've been waiting for this for a long time" and "the experience of 3D and the field of view more than makes up for pixilation", as well as "this would be great on Minecraft"

Don't crash. Normally crashing is bad because it damages your car.  Crashing when wearing the Oculus Rift is disorientating and may make you sick.  At best it'll scare your bowels empty.

It's not all rosy

As my brother pointed out, the 1280x800 version was pixelated and that made the experience less than it would otherwise have been.  Most every game has a HUD and iRacing is no different.  There are a few elements you cannot turn off, but thankfully for the most part they are not in your field of vision, not until you look down.

With all that I experienced using the Rift with iRacing and as good and fun as it is, it is ironic that hardcore iRacers (and hardcore players of other top sims, such as flight sims) are probably the least likely to use the device.  It'll more likely be snapped up by the more casual gamers. Why is that?

The serious guys, such as myself and my teammates, already have expensive sim rigs with many monitors.  We've got physical tachos, small 7" LCD screens, add-ons on our wheels, button-boxes, monitors for real time telemetry display.  The telemetry display is the deal breaker for me.  We need that screen open and accessible.  We need it to monitor our fuel consumption and other data.  It's part of what a race engineer would do, but in most situations the driver is also the race engineer, making calculations about fuel strategies and pit stops as he races.  iRacing does have the crew ability, which allows others to fill that role, as they do in real life, but generally that's only done for the big races, which 99.95% of iRacers don't get into.

I'll still be buying an Oculus Rift the instant it becomes available to consumers. 

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