CES 2018: BMW Brings Real and Virtual Thrills of Driving to Life


BMW USA at CES 2018 panel - photo by Ross Clugston

Wednesday at CES was all about the outdoors experiences that had gotten washed out in Tuesday’s rain. BMW invited people to compare real and virtual driving with a drifting course that let you do high-speed donuts in the parking lot and a line of simulators so you could try your hand a racecar driving. People were drawn from all over the convention by the sound of squealing tires.

BMW’s entire experience at CES 2018 is designed to explore the driving experience from virtual to ‘in real life.’ During BMW’s panel on “The Future of Racing: The Intersection of Virtual Technology and Real Experience,” there was a provocative discussion about how the goal of virtual reality is not replicating reality.

The panel—which included John Edwards, a BMW-sponsored racecar driver; Chris Kinman of GoPro; and Kazunori Yamauchi, CEO of Polyphony Digital and creator of the acclaimed PlayStation Gran Turismo videogame series—discussed the distinct merits of real driving vs. simulated driving as part of the automaker’s “The Ultimate Driver: CES Showdown” part virtual, part real challenge.


They made the point that the immersiveness of virtual experiences is powerful as a form of hyper-realism, but they cannot substitute, nor should they substitute, for the visceral experiences of real life that engage and spark the imagination.

BMW USA at CES 2018 VR - photo by Ross Clugston

The best role for virtual reality, the panelists agreed, is to compliment real life experiences. Whether making experiences more accessible, expanding audiences or allowing people to try, VR can be embraced as an extension of experience.

Yamauchi, now a racecar driver in his own right, was inspired to create Gran Turismo because he wanted to learn how to drive a racecar. Now he sees fans of the game more engaged in watching racing championships because they are more connected to the experience of the driver.

But there is the issue of sustainability. A quick poll of the audience showed many had VR headsets, but most were collecting dust. Beyond novelty, people are still learning the value of VR and designers are finding the right approach to crafting virtual experiences.

CES 2018 - BMW Ultimate Driver CES Showdown - photo by Ross Clugston

Ultimately, the technology is tricking the brain, and this can be tiring for users. Edwards made the point that while simulators can’t replicate the physical forces you feel on your body or the smells of the racetrack, the technology is so good that it’s replicated in how the virtual car drives. While a great tool for practicing, “It’s much harder on me mentally,” he said of driving the simulator and filling in the gaps left by his other senses not being a part of the experiences.

Kinman discussed how virtual experiences must continually surprise the mind and eyes in order to keep the user engaged. His perspective, with Yamauchi’s, gave a window into the process of capturing real-world racetracks, and the care and attention to detail required to make Gran Turismo a title people keep coming back to.

—Fell Gray is an Executive Director and global tech sector lead, Photos by Ross Clugston, a Creative Director at Interbrand New York.