Oculus Rift shows (virtual) reality of car crashes

NRMA Insurance opens Crashed Car Showroom in Sydney

NRMA Insurance has combined Oculus Rift virtual reality with a physical hydraulics system for a simulation that's both fun and frightening.
  • NRMA Insurance has combined Oculus Rift virtual reality with a physical hydraulics system for a simulation that's both fun and frightening.
  • The author of this article (pictured) marvels at his virtual-reality arms.
  • We swear that the car used in the simulation was damaged before we arrived.
  • The Crashed Car Showroom is located on York St in the Sydney CBD. You won't find new cars sold here.
  • On the show floor.
  • In addition to crash test simulation, the showroom features a distracted driving test that uses eye-tracking software to test whether users can hold their attention on the road while driving 60km/h – even when an SMS suddenly comes in.
  • The test attempts to fool the user into answering their text message. Fail to keep your eyes on the road and the test comes to a crashing halt.
  • Another area of the exhibit projected images on a car showing damage caused by a crash.
  • This Peugot was sawed into three pieces to show various safety features.
  • Each part of the car is embedded with Near Field Communications (NFC) chips that can load video on interested users' smartphones.
  • Car lovers may wish to look away.
  • A hail gun lets the driver switch places and see weather damage from the angry storm cloud's perspective.
  • Turns out shooting ice at a car door is a blast.
  • Besides safety technology, the showroom boasts some pretty brutal crash damage.
  • Airbags: before, during and after.
  • A video demonstrated autonomous car technology.
  • NRMA head of research, Robert McDonald, says interactivity is key to teaching people about car safety.
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NRMA Insurance has used the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to promote car safety at a new exhibit in Sydney's CBD.

The Crashed Car Showroom opens tomorrow and the free demonstration will last until 27 March.

The highlight of the event is a crash test dummy simulation that lets a 'driver' experience what it’s like to be in a car crash – first in a modern car and then a Commodore from 30 years ago.

The tester sits in a real car linked to a hydraulic system that moves the car in sync with virtual movements in a 3D simulation. By wearing an Oculus Rift headset, the driver is completely surrounded by the 3D simulation and can turn his or her head to examine the inside of the car and look out the windows.

It’s the first time that Oculus Rift, developed for video games, has been used for a safety demonstration.

“Getting people to understand what happens in a crash, obviously 3D technology was the one that was going to work best,” NRMA head of research, Robert McDonald, told Techworld Australia.

In creating the simulation, the developer tried to create a realistic experience that would accurately convey the speed of the vehicle and the severity of the crash, McDonald said.

“You can tell people all you like [about car crashes],” said McDonald. “If they don’t experience it, they don’t know.”

The simulation was built through collaboration between an ad agency and a film production studio. It was developed with Maya 3D animation software and the Unity game engine.

The real engine in the test vehicle is a top-spec mini-ITX PC gaming rig in the back seat. A small monitor, keyboard and mouse strewn across the cushions let the simulation operators ensure everything is running smoothly.

Check out the slideshow above for more about what’s on display at the Crashed Car showroom.

Cars getting smarter

For NRMA Insurance, the Crashed Car Showroom exhibit showcases the latest advances in car safety technology that are having a significant impact on how the casualty insurance industry does business.

“Cars are becoming massively more complex, so that’s created lots of challengers for insurers in repairing collisions and making sure the car maintains its structural integrity,” said McDonald.

“Reducing the frequency of collisions by having technology intervene is a way of offsetting the increasing average cost of the car crash.”

An emerging challenge for car insurance companies is the rise of autonomous cars that have sensors allowing them to park themselves and even self-navigate. “I think it will take some time before self-driving cars become acceptable, both legally and marketing-wise,” said McDonald.

However, elements of the self-driving car have already begun to appear in new cars and will continue to be added in the next five to ten years, he said. These include autonomous braking and sensors designed to keep a car from drifting out of a lane.

“Self-navigation is the issue that’s being held back and that’s going to take some time for people to accept,” he said.

From an insurance perspective, it is the liability question that poses one of the biggest challenges, he said. If a person isn’t driving, it is not clear cut to say who is to blame – and therefore who must pay – for the crash.

Coming up with a methodology for determining whether the responsibility belongs to the driver, the car maker or the insurance company will be critical in the road ahead, he said.

Adam Bender covers startup and business tech issues for Techworld and is the author of a dystopian novel about surveillance. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Techworld Australia on Twitter: @Techworld_AU

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