Maza has two booths at the New York International Auto Show this year, one booth up on the main floor of the Javitz Center, and another down on the lower level by the racing collectives, trucks, and industrial vehicles. Mazda's second booth has all the same cars as their other booth, but the main attraction is the VR experience tucked away into a corner. I almost walked past it, but the giant VR letters caught my interest.
There was a lot of VR at the Auto Show this year, and it makes perfect sense. One of the things you can't do at a car show is drive the cars, but that's the best part of looking at cars, isn't it? A test drive will sell you a car faster than anything else a salesman can do. But a car show is, traditionally, a place to look at cars. Maybe you can sit inside one. But you can't drive them. VR is the next best thing. And Mazda's Jinba Ittai VR experience is perhaps the closest to really driving the car as we've come so far.
The VR attraction is pretty understated. Just two chairs and two Oculus VR headsets, with a nice banner on the wall behind them. The actual experience itself is a little bit different.
The phrase Jinba ittai is a Japanese term which refers to the bond between horse and rider. It's that symbiotic relationship that Mazda is attempting to give you with their cars. So the VR experience is interactive, and works to try and customize the simulation to you. It fails in a number of ways. Your viewpoint inside the virtual Miata is set to a certain height- a height some short people like myself would never be in while sitting in a car. The chairs chosen for the experience were also a poor choice – the Miata has bucket-seats like any sportscar. And that's a hard experience to clone when you have people sitting properly upright with their feet planted on ground.
The VR experience is set up so you drive on the left-hand side of a car, as you would in the US, but to start the simulation you have to hit a start button. A start button the simulation assumes you would hit with your left hand, so when I went to hit it with my right, it didn't work out so well. Looked like a right idiot and my friends who went with me are very, very disappointed that they didn't get it on video.
After that, it was figuring out my seat in the "car," which was relatively easier. The external sensors here weren't so easily confused, and the process went much smoother. Once I had the seat relatively in place – though I seemed much too tall – I was put through a guided driving simulation. Unlike the Star Wars Battle Test VR that Nissan rolled out, I actually felt like I was in a moving vehicle for the first few seconds. That sudden shock to the system when I realized the movement input coming to my brain was only visual was jarring, but worth it for that brief sensation of true motion. And I'd gone absolutely nowhere.
And that is what VR is best at, giving you the sensation of something that isn't actually there. Mazda did it perfectly, even if only for a second.