WHEN SOMEONE HANDS YOU an Oculus Rift, you flinch. You flinch because the Rift is a $600 pair of VR goggles, and VR stands for virtual reality, and you suffer from such motion sickness that you can't even think about reading in a car without wanting to throw up. When eyeballs don't match the inner ear, lunch comes out the chimney.
At least, it does if you're me. So this summer, right before I strapped into a world-class racing simulator in Los Angeles, I glanced around the room. Searched for a wastebasket to make out with. I'd never tried VR. Maybe it would be fine. Maybe the whole of Southern California would get painted with my Jersey yodel. In the run-up to battle, always survey the field.
And then the software booted and the real world evanesced and I was in some kind of GT car at Willow Springs and holy hell if I didn't just crank around that ballbuster of a big, fast, fake road course like it was the most natural thing on earth.
There was no puking.
It felt like a car.
This is such a big deal, I almost fell over.
I'm 35. Young enough to have grown up with a house full of tech but old enough to remember when my parents bought their first PC. For whatever reason, racing sims have always left me indifferent—neither entranced nor entirely put off. In real life, I do silly things like race cars, ride motorcycles, and moon over airplanes. I love that stuff for the skill it demands, but also because it puts your spine in the breeze and hands you the reins.
Still, reality costs money and time. And so progress has given us the highly accurate simulator, which means you can now learn everything from left-foot braking a rally car to the intricacies of Road America simply by picking up an old Xbox. If you have more to spend, you buy a wheel and pedals and run online-racing software like iRacing or Project CARS.
If you're lucky enough to have deeper pockets, you call CXC Simulations, in L.A. Founded in 2007 by a racer named Chris Considine, CXC makes motion rigs—550-pound seat-and-display combos that vibrate and tilt to enhance the sim illusion. The company's Motion Pro II costs more than a new Mercedes but looks like NASA science. The belts in a CXC seat ratchet tight, then loosen, to simulate braking loads. Fans blow air at your face when you drive a digital car (or a kart) without a windshield. The top-line variant offers three huge display screens and 172-degree vision.
You can pair all this with outside software, like iRacing. And, as of this summer, the Oculus Rift.
The Rift. What a piece of genius. Designed by a 24-year-old Silicon Valley wonder named Palmer Luckey. He built the first prototype in a garage in 2011, eventually besting an entire industry—shockingly affordable VR, zero traditional drawbacks. (Among the problems solved: motion sickness, latency, weight.) In 2014, Facebook bought Luckey's company, Oculus VR, for $2 billion. Last spring, they released a consumer version of the Rift. Minds collapsed.
Take iRacing—great software, with a physics model that makes the competition seem like fappery. And yet, on a screen large enough for realism, my throat unswallows. At CXC, I popped a Rift on my head, blinked, and immediately forgot about my inner ear. The usual VR tricks were present: When I moved my head, the world turned. I could look down at my belts, over to an apex, forward to a brake zone. CXC's work was the kicker. If I shoved the car over a curb at speed, the Motion Pro's seat actuators would jump. Which would in turn make my head jump, a movement read by the Rift. Which then made the cockpit move instantly and ever so slightly, relative to my eyes. Just as it does in real life.
I climbed out of the seat with a weird, edgy pulse and a skin tingle that I've never felt anywhere but a racetrack paddock. Encouraging, wonderful, terrifying. As was the fact that you can run iRacing and an Oculus Rift with little more than a laptop and Wi-Fi.
I left CXC that day and headed to Willow Springs for a commitment—the real Willow Springs, in the desert, about 90 miles north of L.A. On the drive out, I couldn't help pondering the inevitable evolution of what I had just witnessed. Wondering how long it would be before the thrill and sensation of reality no longer justified the risk and cost of a real car.
Racing without sheetmetal may seem silly. At its core, motorsport is about being present in a precise, unique moment. And yet, shades of Blade Runner: With enough science and time, anything is possible, including simulations indistinguishable from reality. You have to assume that we'll reach a point where competition is the only lure, separate from the machinery. Where future generations wonder why we were dumb enough to strap into cars in the first place. ("Dad, those things were dangerous!")
AND THEN THE SOFTWARE BOOTED, AND THE REAL WORLD EVANESCED. THERE WAS NO PUKING. IT FELT LIKE A CAR. THIS IS SUCH A BIG DEAL, I ALMOST FELL OVER.
At Willow, I helped a friend set up his BMW 2002 vintage race car—suspension tweaks, gearing changes, and so on. It was fun, because sorting a race car usually is. But that night, I lay in bed, restless. That odd, presleep hum, where the world won't quite turn off.
The desert flooded into my head. The clear heat and dry wind. I wanted to steal a moment at Willow—just one more lap.
A Rift wouldn't have gotten me there. Not totally. But it might have been enough.