In simulator racing, drivers constantly strive for the ultimate dive. Using technology to simulate the sensations a driver might experience in the real world is an important element, and various forms of technology have been constantly developed over the years in pursuit of realism.
Virtual reality, wind generator, direct drive wheel bases and hydraulic pedals. All these elements are designed with one main goal – to make sim racing as close to motorsport as possible.
It’s also fair to say that in many cases, the level of immersion correlates with the level of driver satisfaction. Of course, not everyone has the ability to drive a Formula 1 car through the streets of Baku without encountering barriers, but even if the cars themselves should be somewhat accessible, most will still enjoy the realistic physical sensations that the chosen equipment provides .
One of the biggest differences between virtuality and reality is movement. Even if you’re driving 230 mph through the Moulson Strait in the game, you’ll stay put. That is, unless you’re using a motion simulator.
Powertrains come in all shapes and sizes, and in the spirit of automotive development, various companies are constantly trying to develop unique methods to optimize the experience.
A popular choice involves the use of tactile technology through motors and actuators.
Simply put, haptic technology in the context of sim racing uses a combination of motion, vibration and texture to give the user a realistic physical experience in a virtual environment.
The leader in this segment is the Canadian company D-BOX, which specializes in the implementation of haptic technologies in various forms, from attractions in theme parks and cinemas to home entertainment systems and, of course, racing simulators.
It currently makes a Gen 3 drive system, and I was able to test it side-by-side with an early concept version of the Gen 5 system. Both rigs use the same four-point drive design (one at each corner), and while both provide a similar experience in practice, the latest creation more refined and compact in its design. In both cases, the goal is to help add sensory overload while racing in a virtual environment.
First, I tested the G3 system on one of the most difficult stages in Greece at DiRT Rally 2.0 in a Subaru Impreza rally car.
I’ve run into motion platforms before, but this one was particularly polished and sorted right out of the box. Every feature in the game like water splashes, rocky areas, jumps and height drops gave me a unique experience.
This should come as no surprise given the high accuracy of the D-BOX system. It interacts directly with the game software and creates an individual feedback loop for each individual “event”.
For example, a rumble band will create a certain level of vibration, a pitch change will create a certain type of movement. There are over 65,000 possible feedback combinations, and this level of detail really shines.
The rocky sections of the stage felt particularly bumpy, the big jumps giving me that moment of peace before the heavy double squeeze on landing. I was genuinely surprised at the loyalty; no two parts of the scene are the same. While it was an intense experience, it was far from mind-blowing, so the level of enjoyment was high.
“Feeling the car sliding around the corners really puts the brain back into the environment it’s in during the race, so you just feel like you haven’t left the car,” explained the rally driver. Louise Cookwho was there to show me the ropes.
While she is focused on her World Rally Championship career and is currently in the process of securing a deal for the upcoming Rally Finland, Cook also creates rally simulator video content for her YouTube channel, some of which has garnered over nine million views .
“The use of tactile technology really replicates all the intense rallying sensations that a driver expects. My favorite part of rallying is the jumps, so you can recreate that [with this system] it’s a big help.”
Next, it’s time to try out the latest G5 system with the Assetto Corsa circuit simulator. The element that really stood out for me here was the bumps in the road and the lateral movements in the corners.
On longer straights like the Döttinger Höhe Nürburgring Nordschleife, each bump started to feel more defined as I picked up speed, helping to convey the feeling of speed.
When I stood on the brakes in turns, the tightly fastened seat belts worked with the movement of the chair, creating a distinct sense of stopping power. Blockages were conveyed through texture and vibration, under- and over-rotation through movement. It wasn’t as intuitive as the rally experience, but that’s how it should be.
Of course, there were still elements that I thought could be improved. Extra belt tension and movement will add more realism to braking, some extra subtle vibration at high speed through the seat base and indeed the pedals will have a similar effect.
I feel that if you combine this highly accurate haptic movement with additional capabilities such as wind generation and some form of more realistic sound simulation, you will be well on your way to maximizing the potential of sim racing technology.
As this develops, so does the synergy between digital and analogue motorsport. Tactile technology alone does not create perfect immersion in a racing simulator. It does, however, take a noticeable step forward in real-world driving experience.
Not only did I feel more connected to the virtual car beneath me than ever before, but I also enjoyed using it. At the end of the day, sims should be fun too.
While I don’t see this technology appearing in most lounges for some time, given the overall cost and complexity, I can definitely see it being a fantastic option for driver education sessions, experience centers – it will be used for soon officially licensed F1 seats – and those who don’t have budget constraints and want to create the most immersive experience possible.
On a macro level, I don’t think sim racing can ever give us full realism, both physically and mentally. It will never be able to fully convey the intense forces of overdrive, nor will it be able to safely recreate the very real feeling of fear, but it does give you a practical and affordable alternative to driving a race car.
Developments like haptic technology are bringing us closer to reality in areas where it’s really possible to get close, and we’re now at a point where the connections are so strong that one can directly influence the other.