Virtual reality experiences have done everything from sticking users into mechanical bird rigs to locking them inside treadmills, but it wasn’t until Saturday that I was able to complete the ultimate challenge: racing a tricycle. At this year’s VRLA Summer Expo, Russia-based Interactive Lab was showing off its latest demo, a wild (and slightly terrifying) race game that let players use an actual, physical tricycle to navigate their way through a neon world pulled straight from Tron.
The VReal Trike demo was made up of a custom-built electric trike equipped with an onboard computer that powered an Oculus headset. A series of 22 motion-capture cameras lined the 15-foot-by-15-foot racing space, capturing the movement of the tricycle, its handlebars, and gathering additional mocap data from the rider’s head. All of that spatial information was processed by the company's servers, and sent back to the trike-mounted computer over Wi-Fi — resulting in what Interactive Lab was cheekily calling "vroom-scale" VR.
A thumb button allowed me to accelerate as fast as I dared, while a hand brake let me bring things to a stop whenever I wanted. The experience was exhilarating — and not just because I knew I could careen helplessly into a wall if I wasn’t careful. It was the marriage of physical sensations with VR visuals. Inside the headset, I was riding a figure eight-shaped track, with pulsing borders and an aesthetic that can only be described as lightcycle-esque. (Pikachu was also randomly hanging out on the side of the track, which Interactive Lab CEO Max Kozlov told me was part of an expanded demo that also used a VR gun for mobile target practice.)
There's no substitute for physical sensation of real motion
But while the accurate tracking and steering certainly aided the experience, what really sold the illusion of racing in this virtual world was the fact that I was also actually racing in the real world. The lurch in my stomach as the tricycle leapt forward, the wind rushing past me as I accelerated; these are things that various VR experiences try to replicate with fans or moving platforms, but there’s no substitute for the physical sensation of real motion. There’s a tremendous amount of trust in a set-up like this — usually when I’m on a motorized vehicle, I want to make sure I can see exactly where I’m going — but even that lent a nervy edginess to the experience.
Now, one could argue that there’s not much point in bothering with VR if you’re asking users to ride a real, physical vehicle; why not just build the actual space you want to present them? But the advantages in a system like Interactive Lab’s are obvious. Not only can you dress up a dark corner of a convention hall into something more fantastic, but that environment can be changed or altered depending on the need of the target audience. There’s also much more to do from an experiential perspective than simply race a tricycle. The Tron-inspired skin could be swapped out for any other original design or well-known intellectual property, Kozlov told me, and things like Pikachu Target Practice can be enhanced or added as needed.
According to Kozlov, his company is targeting theme parks and standalone installations with the system, and once all the requisite safety concerns have been tackled it's easy to see the appeal, particularly if two systems were working in tandem so two people could race against each other at the same time. So if you ever find yourself in a position where you can jump on a motorized tricycle and put on a VR headset, do it. You might think you’re going to die, but you’ll be just fine.