As I climbed into the car, I didn’t have high hopes.
I was trying out Honda’s Dream Drive, a prototype technology that pairs an Oculus Rift headset with data about the car’s movements to produce a virtual reality simulation.
The car (an Acura MDX from Honda’s luxury line) was going to drive around the parking lot at Honda’s new R&D center here in Mountain View, California, and the headset would let me gaze into another world as we drove along.
“I bet it will be a race track with cars whizzing by,” I thought as I put on the headset. Perhaps I’m jaded, but I’ve tried many VR demonstrations and while fun, they often feel a bit lacking and uninspired.
Sure enough, there was the race track. I could see spectators to the left, the pits to the right, and sponsorship banners (Honda’s, of course) on a gantry above the first straight.
We pulled away slowly, and the virtual reality moved in sync with the car’s motion. That was neat, but where were the other cars?
Then came the first twist. They were coming straight at me. We were driving the wrong way around a track, on a collision course with a pack of racing cars coming rather quickly in the other direction.
I wanted to swerve out of the way but I wasn’t in control. I sat there bracing for impact—an over-reaction considering this was a virtual world and the graphics were hardly PlayStation-quality. But somehow the movement of the car made it all seem real.
At the last second, my simulated car made a sharp right-turn into the pits, sending a couple of plastic barriers flying.
In reality, the real car I was in had turned a corner in the parking lot. Information from the car’s computer was being sent to a laptop on the front seat that was driving the simulation. If we hadn’t turned, my virtual car would probably have been in a head on collision.
And then came surprise number two.
Mist filled the VR display and I was on a ship, looking up at a much larger boat to my left, and at whales to my right.
The ship lurched a little as the car went over a speed bump and I started to wonder what was going on. What was in that drink I had earlier?
A right turn, and more mist. Now I was in the air, flying far above the ground. I looked down and around and felt myself gliding through the air.
OK, there was definitely something in that drink, because now I was in space.
Space rocks were floating by, one causing me to duck as it came close, and… hey! Off to the left is the International Space Station, with an astronaut out on a space walk.
“And that’s it,” a voice outside this trippy ground-to-sea-to-space journey remarked. We’d stopped and I reached up to remove the headset, returning to the sunny but decidedly less thrilling world of Honda’s Silicon Valley parking lot.
My takeaway? Virtual reality can be cool by itself, but combine it with additional sensations, like the actual movement of real-world surroundings, and it enters a new dimension. This could be a new way to stay entertained on long journeys by car, bus, train or plane.
It’s not clear if the Dream Drive will become a real product, and if so who will sell it. But someone should do it, and fast.
Martyn Williams produces technology news and product reviews in text and video for PC World, Macworld, and TechHive from his home outside Washington D.C.. He previously worked for IDG News Service as a correspondent in San Francisco and Tokyo and has reported on technology news from across Asia and Europe.