iIron Man needs help. He’s being chased through outer space by some of Thanos’ baddies, so Rocket Raccoon and I rush to his aid. We make a few jumps using the Universal Neural Teleportation Network, and a few rollicking minutes later, I’ve helped blast the enemies to bits. Rocket sets off a few fireworks to celebrate.
After that, I take off the virtual reality headset, hand over the controller, and step out of the car.
I’m not at Disney World, and, no, I didn’t eat acid while watching Guardians of the Galaxy in a Chrysler Pacifica. Instead, I was in the back seat of a new Audi E-Tron at a racetrack on the outskirts of Las Vegas. It’s one of the first few nights of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show. There was just an Oculus Rift strapped to my face, and the experience I had — titled “Rocket’s Rescue Run” — was the result of a deal between Audi, Disney, Marvel, and a new startup called Holoride, which just got spun out of the German automaker.
“Rocket’s Rescue Run” is Holoride’s first public demo. It was created in collaboration with Disney’s Games and Interactive Experiences unit (the same group that created the Star Wars: Jedi Challenges lightsaber duel augmented reality experience).
As Holoride sees it, “Rocket’s Rescue Run” is also a potential answer to a series of questions that crop up now and then: what do you do with your time as a passenger in a ride-hailing car? Do you strike up a conversation with the driver or the people you’re sharing it with? Or do you look at your phone and pray for the day that Lyft releases a “quiet mode”?
And what happens to these questions as self-driving cars start to come into the mix?
“Mobility, as we know it today, will radically change,” Holoride co-founder Nils Wollny says. “The infrastructure will change, the architecture or vehicles will change, the way we access mobility will change. And, most importantly, the experience will change. So the passenger moves into the focus, and content — especially entertainment — will be a major driving force for the mobility experience of the future.”
“We believe that the automobile presents an amazing future opportunity to deliver a unique experience for backseat passengers that enhances our storytelling and takes advantage of what’s great about being a moving vehicle,” Mike Goslin, Disney vice president, adds.
Holoride started as a project inside Audi that was meant to reimagine the future of in-car entertainment. But it’s been spun out as a bona fide startup, with Audi taking an undisclosed minority stake. Now, Holoride wants to make VR content to entertain ride-hailing passengers, using data from the cars about how they’re moving through the world to match and enhance the movements of the experience. (In the case of our demo, every time the car moved, my spaceship moved.) It’s also possible to imagine how, one day way down the road, Holoride’s plan might fit into a world full of self-driving cars.
The idea is similar to the VR roller coasters and water slides that have sprung up over the last few years, though it’s more dynamic and less tethered. One Uber ride might take longer than another because of traffic or the route being taken, for example, and Holoride’s excitable co-founders want to create unique experiences that can fit all of those possibilities — what they call “elastic content.” Think Netflix’s Bandersnatch but in VR and in a moving car, with the G-forces that come from acceleration and turning providing a sort of haptic feedback that enhances the experience — or, as Wollny puts it, “a perfectly motion-synchronized journey through virtual worlds.”
Building immersive content that changes on the fly might sound like a hairy task, but there are more constraints to a car ride than you might initially think, says Daniel Profendiner, one of Holoride’s co-founders.
He describes an early prototype where the user could move through an infinite render of outer space. That was too unmoored, he says. “We realized, okay, we needed to give the motion some context, because you want to know where you can fly, and where you can’t fly,” Profendiner says. “And then we realized we have the map data, we have the car, we have the navigation route, we know our surroundings. So we took that data put into the game engine.”
For Holoride, maps and navigational routes provide a skeletal structure that the VR experiences can be built around. But there are other dynamic pieces to this puzzle, like ride time, or traffic. Say you stop at a red light. Does that mean the experience suddenly turns boring? Not necessarily, says co-founder Marcus Kuehne.
“Maybe another ship comes and puts a tractor beam on you for a time. Or yours gets destroyed, and your droid has to repair it,” he suggests, keeping to the outer space theme. There are “so, so many opportunities, and we will build the mechanics to support that.” Kuehne also imagines using Holoride’s tech to make it possible to watch a movie, read the news, or do anything else that you can currently do in VR.
All this said, though, there was nothing obviously dynamic about the experience I had. Best I could tell by peering out across the dark Las Vegas racetrack that was dotted with floodlights was that this all happened on a carefully charted course. The small fleet of Audi E-Trons took off every few minutes with new passengers aboard, and they followed that course to match the experience that Disney helped create. Exactly how much of it was on rails, I can’t say.
One other reason the Holoride co-founders believe so deeply in their idea is that, in theory, it could cut down on motion sickness. Staring at your phone or a screen on the back of a headrest or even reading a book can be enough to trigger motion sickness for some passengers. But by matching the virtual reality experience to the movements of the car, the Holoride team thinks they can mitigate that problem, while also opening up these brand-new possibilities in the world of in-car entertainment.
I had more fun blasting bad guys in space than I thought I would. There were moments when I genuinely lost myself in the interactive experience, much in the same way I have during something like the Star Tours ride at Disney World. But I still left a little spun, and that queasiness lasted for 15 minutes or so after everything was over. It was that same dragging feeling that I’ve experienced while looking at my phone on a twisty road, which is exactly the kind of problem Holoride says it aims to cure.
There were also times during the ride when the G-forces being generated by the car didn’t totally match what I was seeing in the VR headset. But it didn’t take long for my attention to snap back to the video game experience I was immersed in. Inner ear issues aside, the five-minute ride was nearly theme park quality, even with the resolution and comfort limitations of modern mobile VR headsets.
With ride-hailing booming and the transportation and tech industries salivating over the idea of commercial self-driving services, it’s no surprise that companies like Audi are thinking about how to serve up new types of content. In fact, there’s a long list of ideas like this. EV startup Byton made its debut at CES last year with an electric SUV that’s chock-full of screens that looked primed for a world of autonomous leisure. (At this week’s show, Byton returned and added another screen to the car.) In 2017, Intel announced that it is developing a Batman-themed self-driving experience with Warner Bros. Mercedes-Benz once trotted out a luxurious autonomous concept car filled with screens that could make it look like you were zipping through completely different surroundings.
Holoride’s co-founders say they want to create more of this “elastic content” with partners across the media landscape and get those experiences into ride-hailing services or make it available to other automakers. (That makes sense. When was the last time you were picked up by Lyft or Uber in an Audi?) They also want it to be device-agnostic. “This is not an Audi thing,” Profendiner says. “We have to build a platform because if we do it only for Audi, it’s a niche product. You will have limited content, and this won’t have a large impact on the market.”
The “Rocket’s Rescue Run” experience Audi, Disney, and Holoride showed off this week was a one-off, not something people outside the show will be able to see or try for themselves. But it’s clearly not going to be the last attempt at something like this. Audi and Holoride are collectively staking a (pretty bold) claim that there will be a demand for in-car VR, and especially for carefully designed experiences like this one, to the point that the automaker spun out the startup to get a head start on this new take on in-car entertainment.
If headsets continue to shrink and passengers wind up craving more unique experiences beyond scrolling through Instagram, watching television, or simply staring out the window, then perhaps Holoride has a chance. Until then, the startup now joins the thousands of others that make their debuts at CES in that frothy limbo between headlines and a real business.