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How virtual reality could enhance the way we watch motorsports

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Formula 1 is currently faced with a crucial juncture, carefully balancing the past and the future. While new hybrid technology has now been used for over two seasons now, there remains a call to return to the ‘good old days’ of fire-breathing, ear-splitting V12 engines and fearsome cars.

The push for modernity in F1 is one that the sport’s bosses – including 85-year-old CEO Bernie Ecclestone – consider carefully. Great progress has been made in recent years thanks to the live timing app that gives viewers enormous amounts of data and information, while F1’s official website and Twitter account have become invaluable outlets to anyone who follows the sport.

The big question is ‘what next?’ What will be the next big technology that changes the way in which we consume both F1 and motorsports as a whole?

It may well be virtual reality.

F1 board member Sir Martin Sorrell recently spoke at length about the developments being made with virtual reality (VR) and how they could be utilised in the future.

“Virtual reality for Formula 1 could be fantastic – driving the car!” Sorrell told the official F1 website.

“In the Ridley Scott film ‘The Martian’ you can do that. I have lifted off in the space craft from the surface of Mars, walked in space and looked down into deep space and got terrified, with the headphones and the goggles.

“The technology is already incredible and will improve massively in the next few years. Think about what you could do.”

While it remains a consideration for F1, VR is already making a splash in motorsport courtesy of F1’s electric-powered cousin: Formula E.

Back in April, I had the opportunity to try out VR for the very first time in Paris over the ePrix weekend that saw Formula E race in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. As a self-confessed geek with an interest in video games, where VR tech is already widely used, I was curious to see how it would be implemented when enhancing my experience watching a race, as well as being used to go along with a real-time, real-life event such as Formula E.

One of the key figures involved in bringing VR to Formula E is no stranger to motorsport. Oliver Weingarten worked as the secretary general of the Formula One Teams’ Association (FOTA) from 2011 until its closure in 2014, and also held a similar role with a similar organisation for Formula E during its first season. Now, he is the sports rights and partnership advisor at Virtually Live.

“Virtually Live is a virtual reality start up company based in San Francisco with offices around the world,” Weingarten explains.

“We’ve been live testing with Formula E to create an experience for fans unable to attend the race, to still be able to experience what it would have been like if they had attended. And that is by giving them an immersive and social virtual reality experience.

“The testing that you’ve seen here in Paris and in Long Beach, where we have modelled the circuits and the cars and ingested the live data direct from Formula E, has enabled us to provide this experience.

“You can choose any position around the track, you can choose any driver’s car, you can sit in the car, you can stand alongside the car.

“Additionally within our modelled VIP experience replicating  the Emotion club, you can have a social experience. So if your friends are located all across the world and you want to have an appointment to view and watch at the same time, you can spend time together to socialise and watch the race in a virtual environment.”

It certainly sounds impressive, but what about when we put it to the test?

The demo I tried out used the HTC Vive VR device (although both its competitors, the Oculus Rift and the PlayStation VR, will be supported by Virtually Live). It works by putting on a large headset and holding a lightweight controller in one hand. With these in place, I was now in the new Formula E virtual reality.

At first, my eyes adjusted as they do coming out of the dark into bright light – but I quickly found my bearings. As I moved around and turned my head, the virtual world moved with it. I was standing in the middle of a Formula E hospitality unit with a variety of screens on the walls: one had race footage (this demo was built around the Long Beach ePrix), others had a track map and live timing. Using the pointer, I was bringing them up in front of my eyes, offering up to date information. By clicking on the track map, I could then choose which driver I wanted to ride on-board as the race was taking place.

It was at this point that the demo really blew my mind.

Using the trigger, I clicked to ride on board Jerome d’Ambrosio’s car, modelled digitally using the live data provided by Formula E to get his car position, speed, movement etc. “Formula E provides us with the circuit drawings etc., and we ingest the GPS data live so that we can plot the cars going around the track on a live basis and enable the VR experience,” Weingarten explains.

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Suddenly, I find myself hovering above d’Ambrosio’s car, in a similar position to the T-cam used on most single-seaters. But unlike the fixed place of the camera, I’m able to move around freely. I turn my head left, and I can see everything to the side of the car (a spotter’s dream – think of this like the 360º cam used in IndyCar, only with far more freedom). I turn my whole body around, and I’m riding backwards, looking at the cars chasing behind. I was even able to lower myself down into the driver’s position in the cockpit, giving me an eye-line view of the race.

I wasn’t restricted to just a single car either. While still riding on-board with d’Ambrosio, all I had to do was use the pointer to click on the car behind – and now I’m on board with Sebastien Buemi. I bring up the track map again simply by looking upwards and using the pointer, and I’m able to pick any car on-track to ride with. Clicking another button brings up race audio, available via headphones you can also wear.

What Virtually Live is trying to achieve is giving fans who cannot be at a track the next-best thing. This is done successfully, for you don’t have to run on board with a driver. Again using the pointer, I was able to select a corner I wanted to ‘sit’ at, from where I could watch the race play out. Much as I would at a race track, I can change my view simply by moving around. If I want to go back on-board, I just pick a driver. It’s all instantaneous – there’s no lag or delay, even on the demo.

With the race demo completed, I clicked a button and returned once again to the hospitality unit where I started. There, I could find the championship standings and the race results, and all other essential information. I lifted off the headset, and bang – I’m back in the real world, a conference room in a Parisian hotel on a chilly April day. I’d been in sunny Long Beach just seconds earlier…

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One thing that must be stressed is that, much as virtual lives do not replace our real ones, VR technology is not a replacement for physically going to a race track and witnessing a race, and Weingarten is keen to emphasize this.

Motorsport has, to me, always been a highly sensory experience: the sights, the smells, the sounds (even Formula E cars!). Virtual reality cannot replicate this. Much as video game models of racing cars aren’t quite as pretty as the real thing, you’re aware when using the device that it is a virtual world. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just a disclaimer worth making.

What this instead offers is an alternative to the regular viewing experience. Since becoming involved in motorsport, there are few opportunities I get to sit down and truly enjoy a race like I once did, not worrying about reports, live tweeting or filing copy. But when I do, I almost feel compelled to go back into ‘work mode’ to feel more involved and attached to the race. It is something I want to consume and be take all of my attention. Particularly in a drab race, I may start looking on my phone or check some emails, taking my attention away. I am sure that all fans are guilty of the same thing.

There is no chance of that with virtual reality though. Bored of the race feed? Hop on-board with one of the drivers; go and watch the race from one of the corners; hang out with your mates in the Emotion club. It is a true ‘experience’ that is more than just one-way.

So why Formula E?

“One word: innovative,” Weingarten says. “They are a truly innovative series. We are an innovative company, so there was a nice synergy there to go out and collaborate with them.

“It’s perfectly tailored to motorsport. But it’s not just motorsport, we’re looking at a whole raft of other sports. We are a data driven company. Sports use a lot of data tracking, so we’re open to lots of discussions and in fact I think it’s a really exciting, innovative time for sport at the moment.

“Broadcasters like it because it is a complementary experience. Broadcasters need to innovate, they need to retain subscriptions. They know that fans consume content in different ways now. You just have to look at the millennials. If you look at the demographic for Formula E, that is why virtual reality is so well suited to it.”

The word ‘millennial’ gets a lot of criticism, yet it is a nicely-loaded and rather accurate word to describe a up-and-coming generation, of which I’d consider myself to be a part of at the age of 21. Young people today no longer are satisfied just to watch a race on TV – there has to be more going with it to enhance the experience. This is what virtual reality can achieve with motorsports.

I consider myself lucky to have been born at a time when new technology truly seemed ‘new’: mobile phones were still bricks, computers barely portable and video games just about becoming 3D when I was born. For kids growing up today, there is a risk it is all taken for granted. Big breakthroughs become less and less common. ‘Upgrades’ to phones are an extra 0.1 megapixel camera or a few grams off the weight as opposed to being true overhauls. The boundaries of technology appear to have been reached.

And yet this is a long way from being true. Virtual reality is the future, and is one of the most mind-blowing pieces of technology I have tried out in years. The majority of tech that we use – phones, laptops, tablets – primarily offer a service as opposed to an experience. They are largely one way: we tell it to do something, it does it. Virtual reality is all-encompassing, a true experience that reacts to move than just your right thumb scrolling up and down – and because of that, it oddly feels more real despite being virtual.

It is impossible to predict accurately how we watch motorsport in years to come – but I would say with some confidence that virtual reality will be playing a big part in it.

See Will Power ‘in the flesh’ as he’ll appear on Indy 500-winning Borg-Warner Trophy

Matthew Thacker
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Will Power has had thousands of photos taken of him during his racing career by media, fans, family and friends.

But Power has never undergone the type of photos – and the sitting/modeling he took part in, posing for the image of him that will adorn the Borg-Warner Trophy, symbolic of Power’s win in this year’s Indianapolis 500.

Power on Thursday was at the Tryon, North Carolina studio of noted artist and sculptor William Behrends to complete the finishing touches on the clay model of his face and head.

From there, Behrends will create a miniature version of Power’s likeness to be placed on the Borg-Warner Trophy, which is set to be unveiled December 5 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

“It’s actually really cool to come in the first time and see your face there,” Power told MotorSportsTalk. “All the experiences that goes with the Indy 500 are just all great, and it’s amazing I’m sitting there getting my face sculpted to go on the Borg Warner.”

Power discussed the procedure Behrends went through with him.

“He took photos the day after the race, multiple ones, all the way around my face, the whole periphery of it,” he said. “And then he started sculpting the clay face we see right now, my head.

“And then he had me sit there to get it closer. It’s pretty good as it is, but yeah, he sits there and works on it until he thinks it’s right-on. That’s why he had me there in-person.”

Does it look like you, Will?

“Yes, yes. It was funny, because you’re always looking in the mirror and it’s a reverse of your face,” he said. “No one’s face is completely symmetrical.

“It is funny seeing yourself for the first time like you can almost say in the flesh, an actual model of your face and it looks different from what you expect.”

Power was a perfect subject, Behrends said.

“Oh, he’s a wonderful subject, just a very affable, easy-going guy,” Behrends said. “He was very good company during the sittings.

“These sittings I think, are rather difficult for the subject just because he’s just sitting there. I’m working, but the subject has to sit there for long periods of time.

Will Power watches as sculptor William Behrends puts the finishing touches on the clay molding of Power’s face and head. Photo: Matthew Thacker.

“But Will’s very, very cooperative and very easy-going and we had some very nice conversations.”

Power will be the 29th image that Behrends has created for the Borg-Warner Trophy, dating back to his first effort in 1990 with Arie Luyendyk.

“It doesn’t seem like it, but it’s that many years,” Behrends said. “This is the only thing I do that I’ve done more than once. All of my pieces are one-of-a-kind. But it becomes a regular thing on my calendar of the Fall.”

Behrends explained how the process has worked for nearly the last three decades. It starts with taking photos the day after the Indy 500 to rough drafting and sculpting the model, to having the winning driver come to his studio to do some final touches (as Power did Thursday), and then taking the completed clay model and replicating it to be placed on the trophy.

“There’s really three different parts of the process for my work. I’ll spend 3-4 days here, and then two weeks later, I’ll spend a couple more days, so it’s broken up. I guess if I stacked it all together, it’d be about 2-3 (full-time) weeks’ work of different types.”

After Thursday, seeing the finished product that will eventually be placed on the trophy, Power now has yet another bit of inspiration and motivation to win the Indy 500 again.

“You understand everything that goes into winning that race,” Power said. “(To be on the trophy) will be a lot of great satisfaction and gives you a lot of motivation because you want to go through this process again because it’s such a cool process.”

Here are some more tweets from Thursday’s session at Behrends’ studio for Power:

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