Six months ago, Formula E — the all-electric racing series that was started in 2014 — announced that it was partnering with a company called Virtually Live in order to offer live broadcasts of its races in virtual reality. There was a twist, though: the VR races would be created using computer graphics, offering a sort of interactive video game-style experience where you could be on the track or even watch from right next to the cars. Unfortunately, there was also a second twist: those broadcasts never happened.
This past week, just 10 days or so before the start of Formula E’s third season, the two sides finally took the first step toward that goal of live VR broadcasts. Virtually Live has released four VR highlight packages from some of the best races of season two — Long Beach, Berlin, and the exciting double-header finale in London — for the HTC Vive as one free download in the Steam store. The experience was also released on HTC’s new Viveport marketplace, and it will be available for Oculus later this fall.
The total run time is around 20 minutes, but that’s for all four races combined. You can choose to watch the highlights of just one race, with each lasting about five minutes. The depth is impressive — you may not be driving the cars, but it’s also not a locked-down viewing experience.
When you boot up one of the highlight packages you are given freedom to move around almost the entire track, the pit lane, and the VIP club that Formula E sets up at each race. You can also follow any one of the 18 drivers on the track — with a POV from just outside the cars’ cockpits — and see real-time stats like their remaining battery percentage. (Their electronic steering wheels even light up.) With one of the Vive remotes, you can activate a floating menu that has a map of the course, and from there you can also choose between multiple stationary “TV camera” positions to watch from.
There’s also a “guided mode,” which will automatically move you to say, a car that’s about to make a pass for the lead, or one that’s about to crash, or back to the VIP club to watch the real video feed of the race for a moment while you catch your breath. (You can also pull up the video feed at any point on the track from the floating menu.) And as you watch each shortened race unfold, whether you’re riding along with a car or standing in the pits, the commentary from the television broadcast plays in your headphones.
It’s a unique experience that’s smartly executed. Before getting involved with Formula E, Virtually Live was trying to make this same idea work for soccer games. But the sheer amount of data points combined with the difficulty of recreating accurate human motion simultaneously for about twenty players was a challenge. Racing provides a much more controlled environment, and Virtually Live has done a good job exploiting those limits to create a more polished product.
The graphics aren’t photorealistic, but they’re good enough to make the experience worthwhile. The only real annoyance is the accuracy of the cars’ location on the track and the speed at which they move. If you’re looking carefully enough, you can tell that it’s not quite accurate — things will speed up at times to keep the visuals timed up with the audio, for example.
That said, the Formula E VR experience has come a very long way since I saw a work-in-progress version at Virtually Live’s San Francisco office back in May. During that demo, the cars warped in and out of the walls of the Long Beach track, and the overall experience was much buggier and incomplete. But Virtually Live has refined the experience a ton since then. The final version released this week is a no-brainer if you have access to a Vive, a few GB of free space to spare, and even a passing interest in motorsports.
Virtually Live and Formula E are once again promising that it will attempt to pull off a live version of this experience sometime in the third season. Whether or not they will is a toss-up, and for now, I’m hoping they just keep releasing (and improving on) highlight packages like this one. It’ll be a long while before most people find virtual reality to be an affordable and feasible option for their homes. Formula E and Virtually live should take full advantage of that gap, because they’re already ahead of the pack.