LAS VEGAS—I’d been on the ground for less than twelve hours before I strapped on the virtual reality headset. It was only 8pm but felt far later thanks to time zones and air travel. I had already been chauffeured about that afternoon by a self-driving car, and here I was sitting in the back seat of an Audi e-tron at a race track a little south of the city. I’d already reached Peak CES, yet the show wouldn’t even officially start for another 36 hours.
We were at Speedvegas for a rather exclusive look at Holoride, which Audi thinks is the next big breakthrough in in-car entertainment. According to the company—which has spun Holoride as an independent startup—it’s a “radically new way to entertain backseat passengers in a brand new way.” The idea is deceptively simple: you take telematics info from the car in real-time and use it to construct artificial environments in VR. Or, to put it another way, imagine you’re flying in a spaceship, and every time the car accelerates, brakes, or turns, your spaceship accelerates, brakes, or turns as well.
I know what you’re thinking: “wearing VR in the back of a car is going to make me carsick!” Holoride’s magic formula has been to better match the car’s motion to what happens in VR. That means less conflict between the messages from your eyes and your vestibular system, which means less motion sickness. (Now, only 27 percent of users will experience severe nausea, down from more than one in two before Holoride worked out its digital magic. And 53 percent experience no nausea at all.)
Audi’s idea piqued enough interest to get Disney attached, and the studio’s games division worked with Holoride to construct the demo we were about to experience. I was hoping that meant a ride in an X-Wing, but Audi and Disney have had a long-time partnership that has shown up in multiple Marvel movies, so instead of BB-8, I was joined by Rocket Raccoon, the foul-mouthed trash panda from Guardians of the Galaxy.
I’ll admit it, I was skeptical. I’m not much of a VR aficionado—the headsets never sit comfortably over my glasses, so it’s always a case of being squished or having a blurry experience. But I’m game to try most things, and unlike the last time Audi handed me a VR headset in a car, I didn’t have to do the driving this time.
As a proof of concept, the demo excelled. Flying high above the pink glow of whatever planet we were orbiting felt pretty cool, as did blowing up asteroids or bad guys as the need or urge arose. I can’t lie; I did begin to feel a little queasy toward the end as we started negotiating some of Speedvegas’ bends with more lateral Gs than you would ever normally experience on the public road. But even I could see the possibilities—it really was like a Disney theme park ride all to myself. In space. Holoride’s technology is being developed to be agnostic to both OEM and VR headset brands, so they won’t be locked into just Audis or the Oculus—this is why it has been spun out as an independent startup.
This wasn’t our only glimpse at CES into the future of in-car entertainment, but its demo certainly was the most spectacular. As the engineers and designers see it, autonomous driving increases the need—or the opportunity—for better distractions on car rides. Certainly, the onboard AI assistants that are fast becoming inevitable are going to hear a lot of “are we there yet.” In the near term, that means infotainment systems with a big screen for every seat, each capable of playing its own HD content piped over multigigabit ethernet. Or, if you buy a Byton EV, a gigantic dashboard-wide screen. After that, things start to get much more intriguing.
CES-watchers with good memories will recall that Audi and Disney aren’t the first OEM and studio to attempt combining VR and real-time telemetry; back in 2017 Honda and ConnectedTravel did something similar. This year, those two were back with the latest incarnation of Dream Drive, decidedly less flashy but also a lot more polished and closer to deployment. More mixed or augmented reality than virtual reality, the Honda Dream Drive: Passenger app runs on tablets, not VR headsets, but it still uses real-time data from the car (via Wi-Fi from the in-car hotspot) to inform the experience. Games have elastic or variable durations, with the layout being generated based on data from the navigation system. One game demo featured a Lego-scape that mimicked the (virtual) journey we were on; others could point out interesting landmarks as they passed by.
Like Holoride, exactly how the Dream Drive: Passenger experience ends up once on the market will depend a lot on the content that’s written for it. Unlike Holoride, it doesn’t involve strapping VR headsets on in the back seat, which means it ought to work in ride-hailing settings, too. (I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to wear VR goggles in a car that wasn’t mine unless I knew for sure I wasn’t going to wake up in someone’s dungeon.) But I think here, too, some users are going to get motion sick looking down at tablets on the move—not that that isn’t happening on family road trips and school runs already.
As we move further off into the future, I think we’ll see the headsets and tablets give way to proper augmented reality displays in vehicles. Nuance—which makes rather good voice recognition software that’s used by BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and others, had a demo where the in-car AI used gaze-tracking to know where the driver is looking, then used its natural language processing to be able to answer queries like “what’s that store over there?”
What made it even cooler was the augmented reality windshield, provided by Saint-Gobain Sekurit. Texas Instruments also had some technology demonstrations of augmented reality side windows, where a projector illuminated a thin film that’s in one of the sandwiched layers of the door glass. The ones I saw were monochrome (and technically designed for external displays), but the in-car applications are obvious.
The automotive landscape at CES involved a lot more than just in-car entertainment, of course; stick around for the next few days as we explore what’s going on with the connected car (and how everyone is taking security seriously these days), plus developments (or not) in autonomous driving and electrification.