Driving An Actual BMW In Virtual Reality Broke My Brain

To any unsuspecting bystander, it would’ve looked like someone, likely impaired, driving a flashy BMW in aimless circles around a deserted parking lot. But from my vantage point—in the driver’s seat, staring into a virtual reality headset—there was no parking lot at all. What I saw was a colorful digital racetrack, trying to set a quick lap time while collecting floating BMW-branded tokens.

If this sounds bizarre, that’s because it very much was. Whipping around a 510-horsepower sports car while wearing essentially a high-tech blindfold was a singularly mind-bending experience.

Now, whether or not this tech has any real-world applications is still being determined. Regardless, it was fun as hell. 

What I’m describing is BMW M Mixed Reality, an experience BMW designed as part of its experimentation in the worlds of augmented and virtual reality. You can book a spin in VR for yourself alongside a BMW driving instructor, if you live in Germany and have 660 euros to spare. I got to check it out, along with other research projects, as part of a tour of BMW’s R&D center in Silicon Valley. I was warned the experience might break my brain. It didn’t disappoint. 

Full disclosure: BMW put me up in a nice hotel and fed me for a couple of days so I could see what its Technology Office in Mountain View, California is cooking up. 

After strapping into the M4 and adjusting my seat, the BMW employee sitting shotgun passed me a VR headset with a bunch of motion-tracking doodads on it and invited me to strap it on. I was presented with a yellow dot on a dark background that I had to look at for a few seconds, to calibrate the eye-tracking system. Then we were off. 

At this point, I could see the outside world via the headset’s outward-facing cameras. A trail of virtual arrows materialized ahead of me, and the system suggested I follow them to the start line. With the confidence and precision of a newborn deer taking its first steps, I executed the worst right turn of my life. Driving an actual car toward virtual cues was weirdly hard. The real world then faded away and a neon-filled video-game universe straight out of “Tron” took its place. 

From the dashboard up, everything became digitized: the car’s A-pillar, the shimmering racetrack ahead, the view out of the window to my left. If I glanced down, however, I could still glimpse the car’s interior. BMW realized people need to see their hands on the steering wheel to drive properly. Good thinking. Even though I had known vaguely what to expect from an earlier presentation, it was tough to hold back my amazement at this dazzling virtual environment.

I oohed and ahhed and babbled incoherently at first. For my copilot, it was probably a lot like being the sober babysitter while all your buddies take shrooms. They’re going on and on about how “the trees understand more than humans ever will,” and you just have to be like, “totally true.”

Gallery: BMW M Mixed Reality VR experience

I’d get two runs: a warmup and then the real deal. After a countdown, a futuristic doorway opened up in front of me, clearing the path to the track. I started driving, hesitantly at first, abundantly aware of the dozen-or-so lampposts with immovable concrete bases in my immediate vicinity. But after just a few turns, virtual reality became my reality. 

It was still surreal, don’t get me wrong. But, in a testament to how dialed in BMW’s setup was, driving felt natural in surprisingly short order. As I accelerated, braked and steered in the real world, those inputs were reflected in VR with imperceptible lag time. A camera array mounted to the inside of the windshield tracked my head movements as I peered around the A-pillar for a better view. By the start of my second run I felt confident enough to lay into the throttle with a bit more gusto.

I tried to get a glimpse of the speedometer because, honest to God, I had no grasp of how fast I was going. 40? 50? Nope: 32 mph was my max, as far as I could tell. I swear it felt much quicker from inside the goggles. By the end of that lap, I was enjoying myself so thoroughly that I could’ve gone for a dozen more. 

I’d feared the experience would give me that woozy feeling VR goggles are notorious for—that I’d stumble out of the car and blow chunks at the feet of my gracious German hosts. Thankfully, there was none of that whatsoever. Earlier in the day, I’d tested an augmented reality experience for passengers that BMW is working on with Meta, and that left me dizzy. But to my surprise, my body felt totally normal after a couple of laps. It was my brain that was most affected. 

When the goggles snapped back to displaying the outside world, it took me a beat to grasp where exactly I was. That’s even though the ride ended mere yards away from where I’d entered the car a few minutes prior. 

You’re probably wondering, as I did, what value this tech offers society apart from very cool, real-world video games. BMW has a few ideas: Maybe it could help train drivers for specific scenarios, or provide a clear view of the road in inclement weather. An augmented reality display that could indicate lane lines and other road features in, say, a snowstorm, would actually be pretty useful. 

Or, perhaps, it could just give amateurs a place to make otherwise humiliating and dangerous mistakes on their own, private race track. So that, hypothetically, if an unskilled driver did get a little carried away and clip a virtual barrier or two, the only consequence would be a deleted lap time. And nobody would have to know. 

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