Being driven around the gridlocked-streets of Las Vegas during CES can be nauseating — at the best of times. But doing so with a virtual reality headset blocking your view? Certainly, it's a recipe for disaster.
I don't have the strongest of stomachs; I pack Dramamine wherever I go. So it was with more than a little trepidation that during CES 2023 I agreed to experience morning traffic on The Strip in the back of a car while wearing a VR headset.
This wasn't just any car, though, and it wasn't just any VR system. The car was a 1967 Cadillac DeVille, remarkable in so many ways but, in this context, notable for its abject lack of technology. (Worryingly, it also lacked seatbelts, thankfully not needed on this day.) The headset was an HTC VIVE Flow, paired with a Holoride's new retrofit kit, a $199 add-on that allows you to get in-car VR experiences in literally any car.
Holoride CEO Nils Wollny told me, while they have more OEM partnerships coming ("we can't announce this yet") this retrofit kit makes for an instant, massive expansion for the product's market reach. Wollny calls it "an easy way for people that want to go on a Holoride to equip their car that they have, so they don't need to have the latest Audi."
All you do need is a place to mount the Holoride device, a puck-shaped thing that contains an accelerometer, a high-quality GPS and a wireless module to connect to the HTC Vive Flow. Stick it on the windshield, turn it on and you're good to go. Data from that module drives the various app experiences provided by Holoride — experiences that all include some sort of visual cues to prevent motion sickness.
I sampled what the retrofit pack had to offer while sitting in the generous back seat of the Cadillac, a broad stretch of vinyl that's probably seen some experiences of a very different sort.
I started with Pixel Ripped 1995: On the Road. This is a Holoride-specific spinoff of the indie VR darling. Here, you're playing a 2-D platformer on a virtual handheld gaming system (a "Gear Kid Color"), sitting in the virtual back seat of a virtual car while your virtual parents exchange idle banter up front.
As you really drive through traffic, the game simulates a world around you: an endless, idyllic neighborhood. It looks nothing like the hulking excess of Sin City. It does match the general street layout so that when the real car stops at an intersection the virtual car does the same. The game is basic but fun — miles better than looking out at the gridlock.
In Cloudbreakers: Leaving Haven, a rogue-like shooter that's exclusive to Holoride, you pilot a giant robot through digital clouds, blasting wave after wave of geometric opponents. Around and beneath you, vertical and horizontal sweeping lines give a visual representation for streets. As the car makes a turn, the action in the game swings left or right to match.
The good news is that, while playing those experiences and more, I never felt even a little nauseous. In fact, I got more car sick after 10 minutes in the back of a cab on the way to my next appointment than I did in the 30 minutes I spent in that Cadillac wearing a VR headset.
The bad news is that none of the titles right now seem compelling enough to justify the $19.99 monthly or $180 per year to get access to Holoride's service. Wollny says that they're working with developers to add more titles to its library with an expected rate of new content every two weeks.
More of these simple experiences may not be the answer. To my eye, the killer app here is media consumption. Exit the games and you can mirror your smartphone into VR, jumping into any streaming app that you like. The Holoride software again renders a virtual landscape, like a giant theater screen floating across a moving background, meaning you can enjoy your content free from both distractions and motion sickness.
The next step? Wollny says they're working to get the smartphone out of that equation: "We're currently planning to have a native movie app or streaming app where you can also download the latest movies or TV shows and then just relax, sit back [and watch] on a virtual 180 inch screen."
The retrofit kit is a great way to bring this tech to more people and for Holoride to access far more customers.
However, Wollny told me that adding OEM partnerships is still very much the focus with Holoride working to make integration as seamless as possible.
With more cars packing accelerometers and high-quality GPS, adding support often just requires some software.
"We lowered the barrier as much as we could for car manufacturers to integrate our solution, because for them it's an attractive solution for their passengers," Wollny told TechCrunch. "And, it's an additional revenue stream for mobility data they have. They provide us with the data; we do a rev-share with them."
More recurring revenue plus happier back-seat stomachs sounds like a proper win-win.