iRacers almost missed out on VR support in the last update. According to Shawn Nash, the software engineer responsible for implementing VR into iRacing, it was a very close call. “We ported the support from DX9 into our new DX11 engine which was a large rewrite, but we also had to rewrite other large portions of it to work with the latest Oculus SDK. We weren’t even sure it would be at all ready in time. The user interface was only rendering in one eye, and not in 3D, just five days before the release date!”
Major updates to iRacing are scheduled four times a year, in between most of the championship seasons, to avoid disruptions to the online service. This week was the first opportunity to roll out such an important feature, and it has arrived in pretty good shape. The older DX9-based support for DK2 was decent, if it played nicely with your hardware, but the easier to use ‘Direct Mode’ was temperamental at best on my system.
Thankfully, DX11 support on the latest SDK means those messy workarounds are a distant memory; the new implementation is about as plug-and-play as one could hope for. The performance is a huge improvement over older SDKs, holding 90fps in the majority of racing situations I’ve tested so far on my system (i7 4790K, 8GB RAM, GTX 980), and Asynchronous Time Warp is in full effect, working its magic during the occasional framerate drop. DK2 owners will be pleased to hear that the racing sim remains fully compatible with the older headset too, but HTC Vive owners will have to wait a bit longer, as iRacing currently lacks official support for the headset.
As with other VR-enabled racing sims, the jump from flat screens to the Rift is an eye-opening experience. For the uninitiated, the simplest way to describe it is ‘like you’re really sitting in the car’. Most driving games have a steep learning curve, and newcomers often struggle to relate to what they’re seeing on the TV or monitor.
The popularity of the ‘chase’ camera—where you view the entire car from behind—is understandable, as it compensates for the lack of spatial awareness (essentially controlling the vehicle like a radio-controlled car). Cockpit views, particularly on console games, are often configured to highlight the interior modelling rather than providing a realistic perspective (Forza, I’m looking at you), which often hinders awareness rather than enhancing it. And even in games that support a realistic field of view, it is still unintuitive due to the limitations of the traditional flat display. VR solves most of the these problems in an instant; suddenly cockpit view makes sense to everyone.
On a traditional monitor, or even a well-configured triple-screen setup, it is difficult to gauge the scale of the cockpit you’re supposed to be sitting in. With a VR headset, the experience is natural and you don’t have to think about it. The sense of scale is immediate, due to the seamless head tracking and excellent stereoscopic 3D. It becomes a joy to load every available car and take them for a spin; you’ve never truly ‘seen’ them until you’re driving in VR.
Jump in a Formula 1 car, and the cockpit feels incredibly cramped, and you can appreciate the almost-lying-down driving position and how limited their visibility is due to being so low to the ground. Jump in a GT3 car, and you’re surrounded by a high-tech interior and roof over your head; it looks so convincing and substantial that you want to reach out and grab the rollcage structure. Need to look around that tight hairpin or see if someone is battling at your side? A quick glance with your head is all it takes, and it feels natural to do so.
Even after many hours of VR seat time, where the initial novelty has long since worn off, it is still a joy to see a racing sim from this perspective, and it has some undeniable benefits in immersion and depth perception. But once settled into my familiar racing routines, it became clear that iRacing’s VR support still has much to address.
One of the most noticeable problems is the steering animation. A relic of the days of low-rotation steering controllers, iRacing’s driver arms only animate through the first 180 degrees of rotation (even though wheel input is accepted far beyond that range). It didn’t really matter on a screen, as players would often disable the animation entirely, preferring to look at their own wheel and arms. But in VR, the virtual wheel and arms are important reference points; seeing your virtual arms stop while your real arms continue to turn is quite jarring, and crucially, it can result in a lack of control during certain handling situations. Catching a severe oversteer slide is much more difficult when the animation keeps stopping in this manner, for example.
The current solution is to disable the arms in the options menu, so you’re just left with a virtual steering wheel in front of you, which displays the full rotation correctly. But removing the arms also makes your entire avatar body invisible, which looks very odd too. The iRacing developers are working on an animation overhaul, so this is something that I hope will be addressed in the near future.
Another distracting problem at the moment is aliasing. Assetto Corsa also currently exhibits aliasing issues in VR; the supersampling technique helps, but it is still an untidy image compared to Live For Speed and Project CARS. iRacing managed to implement supersampling too, but it doesn’t play very nicely with the engine’s super-clean visuals, resulting in severe shimmering in places; iRacing software engineer Shawn Nash assures me that the aliasing will be addressed, along with many other improvements. Indeed, this is just a first step, and a very usable one thanks in particular to the solid performance, and the usability of the UI and HUD. The one missing (and somewhat controversial!) HUD element is the virtual mirror, but that is coming soon too.
“In development we are currently adding improvements and bug fixing. For instance, we just added support for the virtual mirror, and we fixed several issues already, such as the text cursor in the garage screen. I can’t promise exactly what solutions will be available and when, but I can guarantee that the current version is just the starting point”.