Innovations and the Driving Simulator

Ah, I remember it like it was yesterday: the world was in a Y2K panic, certain that refrigerators and toasters were going to take over the world and become our robot overlords.

Now here we are 18 years later and all that panic was for nothing. It’s true technology has changed a great deal since the days of the Y2K scare. While toasters have remained relatively unchanged, the personal computer landscape looks nothing like it did almost two decades ago.

We now have graphics cards that are so powerful they are used to mine for cryptocurrency (Bitcoin, Ethereum, and others), display devices we can wear on our heads (thanks, Oculus Rift!), the phone in our pocket is more powerful than a year 2000 computer, and cars are starting to drive themselves. Technology waits for no man and marches onward into new initiatives using state-of-the-art as a stepping stone to stater-of-the-arter.

So how does all of this great technological innovation help driving simulation? Truthfully, not much. Improving graphics technology and faster computers can get you more bang for your buck and make driving scenes look more realistic. But with driving simulation the emphasis should be on the task the driver is performing, and even the best technology can’t make up for a poorly designed driving scenario.

In fact, some technological innovations can have detrimental effects on the driver. High resolution displays, head mounted displays, and even motion can increase the incidence of simulation sickness, which, in turn, affects driving performance.

Take, for example, head mounted displays (HMDs). These are of particular interest because they have been a media darling for over ten years and they allow the driver to see more of the roadway environment than fixed display devices can. We’ve had clients interested in trying to adapt them to their simulator, and while we understand that for some applications a HMD is the perfect display device, we generally try to steer clients away from them. That’s because several issues arise when using a HMD for driving:

  • They generally have a lower field of view than is available with a three-screen simulator. So much of our driving performance is based on cues obtained with our peripheral vision. While the HMD allows the driver to look in a particular direction and see that section of the world, to get the same effect as a three-screen simulator the driver would have to constantly scan back and forth across the roadway, which is not normal driving behavior (and does not use their peripheral vision).
  • HMDs are cumbersome to put on, adjust, and wear for extended periods of time. If a lone person is the only one using the HMD, this might not be an issue, but with a driving simulator you have a wide range of drivers who will require adjustments. And think about this: hanging a device on an older driver for any length of time is not recommended. Is that really how you want to treat grandma?

    Can you imagine having to fit and adjust this on people over and over again??

  • Simple HMDs use simple sensors to track the driver’s head motion. This works for very short runs where the sensor can be reset after each run, but these sensors tend to have trouble after even a few minutes of use. This can lead to simulation sickness and strange visual effects. To eliminate this problem, people have switched to camera-based trackers that do a much better job – but require more physical space (and can be costly).

So, as we enter the new year wondering what technological innovations 2018 will bring, go ahead and check out those HMDs (or other tech toys), but remember to ask yourself, “Will this help or hinder the driver’s performance and ability to complete the task?” And if not, go for it! It’s always fun to play with new toys after Christmas.