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Audi, Disney bring VR games and movies into your car at CES 2019

It's like Ready Player One -- but in the back of your Audi.

Audi

A few years ago I drove a few laps around SpeedVegas, a 1.5-mile race track just south of the Las Vegas Strip. On Sunday night, I lapped SpeedVegas again, but this time I was fully immersed in a space battle alongside Rocket -- you know, the raccoon from Guardians of The Galaxy -- and Iron Man. As I sat in the back seat of an Audi E-Tron crossover, wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, Rocket encouraged me to "shoot" asteroids and rival drones as I "flew" through an outer-space environment.

Audi and Disney's Holoride demonstration

This was the first time the companies let anyone outside Audi and Disney try the VR game.

Audi

Let me be clear: It was awesome fun, and I'd happily buckle up for another round of the game. But, uh, what exactly is it?

This game, called Marvel's Avengers: Rocket's Rescue Run, is the first demo product from Holoride, a new startup in which Audi will hold a minority stake. It's the result of Audi and Disney's promised new media format, which aims to bring virtual reality to passengers in cars. The VR experience is intended to match, visually, what the passengers feel as they ride: If the car turns, accelerates or brakes, the VR environment will do the same thing. And the "experience" -- whether it's a game or a movie or something else -- will be automatically tailored to the length and movements of your drive route.

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Specifically, Holoride will offer something called "elastic content," automatically generated to suit each journey. A movie streamed on your iPad might be longer or shorter than your actual drive, for instance, but every one of Holoride's experiences would automatically match up to the length of a route programmed in the car's navigation system.

In addition, the experience would be tailored to the drive route: In one demo, passengers "see" a cartoon-like, brightly colored town with intersections that match up to the real-world intersections the car is driving past. In another mock-up, users "fly" through a prehistoric landscape and turn left or right, soaring over dinosaurs, as the real-world car steers along the road.

In Audi's own words: "If the car turns a tight corner, the player curves around an opposing spaceship in virtual reality. If the Audi E-Tron accelerates, the ship in the experience does the same."

Audi and Disney's Holoride demonstration

In reality, the Audi laps SpeedVegas. In virtual reality, Iron Man and Rocket wage a battle against alien hordes.

Audi

The idea is to give people something interesting to do when they're riding as a passenger in a car, says Nils Wollny, Audi's head of digital business, who will also be CEO of Holoride. That initially applies to human-driven cars, but it's easy to imagine this type of entertainment working well in autonomous vehicles down the road.

"There are a lot of passengers traveling in the back seat who have nothing to do," Wollny told Roadshow. "In most cases, transit time feels like wasted time."

The VR demo really did bring me out of the world of riding in a car: Sure, I could feel the E-Tron moving around and accelerating and so on, but I found myself so immersed in the game that there was no real sense of what was happening. Now imagine that helping you avoid the monotony of, say, staring out the window on a long trip along the Ohio Turnpike.

Audi and Disney's Holoride demonstration

Though Audi spearheaded Holoride, the ultimate goal is to allow the tech to work with cars from other automakers.

Audi

"Every street pattern turns into a canvas" for content creators, Wollny says, while "every back seat turns into a thrilling ride."

Because the twists and turns and elevation changes of a preplanned navigation route are known, thanks to the car's built-in map data, Audi engineer Daniel Profendiner says, Holoride's software can help create a virtual world that matches the real one. The game engine might be told not to place a digital obstacle near a highway exit, for instance, or might be shown when to make the game whip around to the left to match up with a hairpin bend in the real world.

But what about motion sickness?

One of the most interesting aspects of this virtual reality setup is that, Wollny says, people who use it are less likely to report feeling car sick than those simply watching a traditional tablet or phone. Because visual cues match up with the car's real-world movements, you're less likely to get that sinking feeling you might feel when, say, looking down to read text messages or Facebook updates in the car.

Audi tested the tech with people who self-reported a high propensity for motion sickness, taking them on a 30-minute ride and asking how they felt afterward. Participants apparently didn't feel that sick at all. "That basically solved one of the big problems," Wollny says.

Still, after my brief ride in the Audi, I was feeling rather nauseous. Another journalist seated alongside me also said he felt queasy. Of course, we were trying a demonstration VR experience while riding on a twisting and turning race track. A tamer route might not churn the stomach so much.

Audi and Disney's Holoride demonstration

An artist's rendering of what the Holoride experience feels like.

Audi

It's not just games

Rocket's Rescue Run is an incredibly fun demo of Holoride's VR tech because it feels like you're in an amusement park ride. And for Audi and Disney, the partnership with a Marvel Studios title made sense given the long history between the brands, such as Tony Stark driving Audis in Iron Man movies. But there are many other types of "elastic content" that Holoride could offer in the future. A space battle wouldn't seem so exciting, after all, when riding on the flat, straight highways of the American Midwest.

Profendiner suggests that Holoride's technology could be used simply to watch a movie in the car with less motion sickness: The VR experience would present a screen ahead of the viewer. He also imagines experiences that let passengers time travel as they ride through a modern-day city while seeing how buildings looked in years past.

"I can say perhaps let's go minus 2,000 years [in Rome]," Profendiner told Roadshow. "Or you go to New York City in the 1920s."

Audi and Disney's Holoride demonstration

Holoride will initially be based in Munich, but Wollny says it could also open an office in the US.

Audi

An open platform

Audi began working on Holoride technology about four years ago and brought Disney on board about 18 months ago. But the goal long-term is for it to be an open platform: anyone could produce content and it could work in any car. Though he's cagey with details, Wollny seems to hint at a type of app store-like model where a user might buy experiences -- movies, games and so on -- for their Holoride device. Then the car would connect to your virtual reality headset with a wireless connection to provide information about your route and the car's motion.

Wollny says Holoride will launch an SDK (software development kit) for others to experiment with by the end of 2019, and plans to launch the system commercially by late 2020 or early 2021. That's when, Wollny says, "next-generation" virtual-reality headsets will be available to take the technology mainstream.

So in a few years' time you might not bother cueing up a Spotify playlist or downloading a Netflix show to stay entertained on a road trip. Instead you might strap on your virtual reality headset and plunge into a virtual world, courtesy of Holoride.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.