How could virtual reality be used in connected cars?

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We’ve talked before about all of the things we’ll be able to get up to in cars in the near future, whether it’s reading, playing on our phones or simply taking a nap, because ultimately before long, nobody is going to need to keep their hands on the wheel. And we aren’t even talking decades into the future. In under 10 years, you could have your very own driverless car which takes you somewhere, drops you off and then leaves to go and park itself somewhere quiet without you ever having to do more than input a destination. It’ll even come and pick you up when you’re done.

Another technology that’s emerging right alongside this growing trend of vehicle automation is virtual reality. More so than the desktops, laptops and games consoles of the past, virtual reality lets us step into a world that is entirely lifelike. While not necessarily photo realistic, VR is powerful enough already to give you a genuine feeling of presence, which has been the holy grail for companies trialling the technology for decades.

With that in mind, it stands to rights that with all of that free time we’ll have not-driving, we may spend some of it in virtual reality, especially when you consider the fact that all cars of the future are likely to have a big, powerful computer in them to handle not only driving, but also all of the entertainment functions new head units are capable of delivering.

For entertainment

The most obvious use for VR within a heavily connected vehicle will be in entertainment, whereby hooking it up to the equivalent of a powerful desktop computer will allow users to visit virtual worlds and play games to their heart’s content, forgetting even that they are within a speeding vehicle. But beyond games that we know and love today, what sort of entertainment options could VR offer?

A basic one that’s available to early headset adopters today is a VR cinema experience. Imagine that instead of driving along in a car, you and your loved ones can put on headsets and transport yourself into an empty movie theatre, viewing your favourite film or a brand new one, streamed directly to your car. You could theoretically even view the same film as friends in far flung places, or join screenings with other motorway drivers.

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VR cinemas experiences are already great fun

If you’re feeling even more social, there could potentially be a meeting function for those in nearby cars, letting you hang out and play games or meet new people in VR, simply because you happen to be travelling down the same piece of motorway together. Becuase of this chance meeting system, it could open up all new sorts of functions, including dating.

Gaming could also become exciting, pairing you with those nearby you and making for an us vs them game between people on one side of the motorway against the other. New gameplay types could be created depending on the speed of your vehicle.

What about watching a live gig from the comfort of your car? Or watching a standup gig through the eyes of a 360 degree camera. All of that is possible in VR with fast streaming technology combined.

As a view port to the outside world

Although looking out of the window at the moment is important in several ways – namely not crashing the car – when nobody needs to look where they’re going, we are unlikely to stare out of the window at our surroundings. Already today, passengers are more likely to have their nose buried in a book, their phone or a portable games console, so will that become even less in a world of driverless cars where even the driver can take their eyes off of the road?

Still, what if you want to look outside? In the future cars may be covered with screens and displays, or simply does away with a lot of the glass altogether, as safety can be improved through replacing it with stronger and lighter materials. That’s where virtual reality may come in, especially considering the fact that most cars will come fitted with 360 degree cameras for sensing the road better. Why not let a passenger take a look through the ‘eye’ of one of those cameras while on the move?

Thanks to their 360 degree nature, users would be free to look around as they pleased, even potentially using built in zoom features to better focus on parts of the world that are further away. Depending on other sensors used too, the ‘virtual’ world being viewed, could also be augmented with built in tourism software pointing out hotspots or landmarks that might be worth visiting. Even if VR isn’t the focus of such tourism efforts, guided travel might actually be something that leads people to look outside more than they do now.

Perhaps the world of the connected car won’t be so focused on the interior as people think.

For business

Although Mercedes showed off a new type of vehicle at CES this year, featuring business meeting room functions, that could be expanded far further if you factor in virtual reality. One of the features the new owner of Oculus VR, Facebook, was so excited about when it bought the company, was that would allow for a new type of meeting. Not necessarily just business, but if you can hang out and chat with people in a virtual space, like an advanced form of video calling today, why couldn’t you have business meetings in the same way?

And if that functionality is there, why not use it while on the move too? If a car was fitted with a simple VR helmet, there is no reason to think that a person couldn’t have their avatar dressed in a nice suit and seated at a conference room table with other people in virtual reality, whilst speeding along the motorway to some specific destination. It might be on the way to work, or off on a break or travelling to another conference with real people, but that business meeting in VR would be just as applicable.

office

This is an office from Grim Fandango, but you get the idea.

VR on the move can be work related without involving meetings though. Imagine you are a writer, or a graphics designer or even an architect. You could work from a digital version of your office while on the move, without actually having to be there. You could have someone duplicate your ideal set up in virtual reality and just load that whenever you want to do some work, everything you do being saved and uploaded to the cloud, making it accessible next time you sit down to work at your real workstation – that is, if the real workstation even remains necessary at that point. Why not have a VR helmet at work too?

But VR on the move wouldn’t necessary be useful like this just for office workers. If you were a performer, you could practice in-front of digitised crowds while driving. You could sing, or tell jokes or tell stories to your heart’s content, without the need to move from your car’s comfortable interior.

You could even train for whatever your job is while on the way to do it. If you have a particularly difficult task to achieve, brushing up on it while on the way to the job might not be a bad idea. With VR, you could put yourself in that very position and have the tools necessary to that job in the virtual space. From there it’s a question of going through the motions, potentially with audio or visual cues to help remind you what’s next, every step of the way.

For relaxation

Although you could argue that this usage could come under the entertainment umbrella, meditation and VR induced relaxation will likely become a genre of experience in their own right and aren’t necessarily designed to be fun or especially memorable. Instead, what certain virtual reality environments could do, would be to make you believe you are somewhere other than a metal tube flying down a motorway. Likely this sort of technology will also be utilised in planes before long, helping people get over their fears of flying.

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Eden River was one of the earliest VR relaxation demos.

There are already VR relaxation experiences available for the DK2 and they’re only going to get better. Some put you on a sunny beach, with the waves lapping at the shore and the sound of birds overhead, whilst others put you in a roofed basket hanging beneath a balloon during a rain storm that gives you the pitter patter of rain drops on the roof, the rainsoaked landscape gliding by below. Regardless of the actual content of the experience though, VR has the power to transport people to whole new worlds and we don’t always want those worlds to be full of guns, aliens and bad guys to slaughter. Sometimes we just want to relax, and while books, movies and music can do that to an extent, VR has the potential to go far further. You could potentially even take part in any or all of those other activities in a more relaxing environment than your car through the magic of VR.

Conclusion

Since we are still in the very early stages of virtual reality development, it’s going to be several years before we can really see what the technology is capable of, especially when it comes to automated cars. Fortunately then, by the time the technology to make our cars drive themselves around with us in tow is realised, VR technology will be almost photo realistic, featuring all sorts of new control methods that will make the experience of using it in a car as normal as standard game play on a screen is to us today.

Have any of you had a go on a virtual reality headset in the last year? If so, what did you think? Could you see us adding VR to cars in the near future?

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.