Practice, patience, track knowledge, fun, and immersion. Perhaps a small, virtual community if the social life is lacking a bit. But, like attending a really good matinee, a little time on the simulator, if it’s good enough, can offer some much needed escape. For most of us, that brief trip to a virtual track is a large part of a simulator’s appeal. Like an ornately decorated movie theater, a convincing sim can persuasively immerse us in the experience.

Direct-drive steering wheels and laser-scanned tracks have done wonders for providing something that can convince the experienced driver. Unlike the arcade-like experience of the older Gran Turismo games, things feel genuinely real now. Along with good graphics and realistic feedback from the inputs, the optics have gone a step further to help the discerning driver feel nearer to the real thing.

I feel it’s safe to assume most of this article’s readers are a little more concerned with the simulators that put physics first and appearances somewhere further down the list. Nevertheless, even if they’re not judged as frequently on their aesthetics, the visual aspects of a serious simulator shouldn’t be disregarded. It’s not eye candy we’re talking about, either.

We’re easily suggestible animals. How we view the simulator has a direct effect on how quickly we learn. It also has a pronounced effect on our nervous system, and if the visuals are convincing enough, it should be obvious in the signs like sweat on the brow or those nervous pre-race tics indicative of a driver convinced he is somewhere he is not.

Some people swear by VR. They feel that it engages the user far more than even the nicest wraparound screens will. Some stick by the screen and cite its ease of use as one of the reasons they’ve stuck with it. Some alternate depending on their mood, the length of the race, or their visual sensitivity. To get a better idea of what virtual reality and the conventional screen offer the discerning sim racer, we’ve asked two knowledgeable racers for their opinions on the differences between these two types of vision.

Too Real

The 3D image offered by a headset, provided the resolution’s strong enough, is easier to interpret. There’s less difficulty in determining the braking point and, obviously, the proximity to cars, walls, and other solid objects. It can’t be underestimated how much these aspects play a role in driving accurately.

Without any external influences interrupting focus, the VR experience can be too convincing. “If your goal is to have it fulfill the role of a training tool, as in something that accurately mimics the sensations of a real car, VR is the way to go,” declares Matt Geddes. Geddes is an instructor for Turn2 Lapping, a regular driver in endurance racing, and a dedicated sim racer.

The right kind of VR provides a convincing illusion — so convincing so that it can increase the heart rate, cause a driver to sweat, and occasionally get them to curse at their opponents. Screens can, too, but the headset seems to excite the driver far more. With the wraparound visuals and the ability to look over the shoulder, it tricks the mind. I’ve been guilty of giving another driver the finger after an accident as if they could see me. It is convincing stuff.

The extra spatial awareness helps if a driver is spending lots of time looking through their side windows. The ability to use a realistic range of vision, check over your shoulder, and look around the interior of the car is not just cool, it’s necessary to drift at your maximum. For this reason, drifters prefer using simulators with a headset. Unless you spend a lot of coin on (a) massive wraparound screen(s), you’ll want a headset to look in the right direction when the side windows have more smashed bugs on them than the windscreen does.

For these reasons, it’s almost silly to avoid trying the VR headset. “I would suggest people — serious sim racers — ought to try a VR setup,” urges Geddes. “If it proves to be too intense, it can be returned for screens.”

A Matter of Endurance

This intensity of VR might not be for everyone. It’s not necessarily the one that some are most comfortable with. Too much excitement can take a toll on performance. There’s a lot to take in without a static background behind your field of view. The speakers right beside the ear raise the heart rate. The crashes on a VR headset are intense — perhaps a little much for those getting started. I suppose there’s a limit to the amount of realism your typical gamer or car enthusiast would want.

“If it’s purely for entertainment, VR may be too intense,” Geddes begins. “It’s more physically and mentally draining than the screens. Most drivers can only handle about 60 to 90 minutes of constant VR engagement—at least at first.” Even most seasoned drivers will need a break after a couple hours.

Some of that is due to our need for a realistic frame rate to avoid tiring out. If we’re staring at a screen that seems to lag, even by an imperceptible amount, that little bit of adjustment our brains must do makes us fatigue faster.

Plus, the contraption is noticeable when strapped to your head. If you’re prone to sweating, the headset can get a little fogged up, though the main issue is that the foam padding around the viewport seems to encourage perspiration and redness around the forehead, eyes, and cheeks.

Interestingly, this intensity plays a part in the way Geddes shapes his training regimen. As an endurance racer, he has to practice for hours to get the right sort of rhythm he’ll use in real life. If the intention is to run longer sessions, as would an endurance racer practicing for an upcoming event, it could be beneficial to sit before a larger screen farther from the eyes to reduce visual strain.

Endurance racing is about seat time and sometimes comfort takes precedence when that’s the aim. “I find that when I’m practicing for longer stints, I prefer using the screens. I don’t have to deal with the same performance drop-off I have with VR.”

Pleasant setting around the screened sim can make the racing experience almost casual.

Practical Concerns

In addition to the expense of high-resolution wraparound screens, they also take up a good amount of space. If the apartment or man cave is a little short on room, the smallish VR headset should appeal to your sense of spatial economy.

For big-city dwellers, this arrangement holds obvious appeal. With enough room for a seat, pedals, and possibly a frame, those living in a Brooklyn shoebox can still enjoy a high level of racing realism.

Plus, the headset’s built-in sound eliminates the need for bulky speakers. It also adds the compelling feature of surround sound. It is a nice thing to be able to hear a driver approaching on your right — though, to be fair, a good external speaker setup could convey this even better.

An inexpensive VR headset appeals to the budget-conscious and space-constrained.

Although a decent VR setup may negate the need to buy as many accessories, the greater demand on computing power may outweigh its benefits. A serious gaming computer, a great internet connection, and connection to a wall socket are usually required by a modern VR headset.

The programmer types playing these games might prefer a screen for one practical reason. Though it depends on the program used, many of the simulators out there don’t have the intuitive interface appreciated when working on the game. A less polished setup menu may force a user to repeatedly take their headset on and off, since the computer and the VR headset don’t always project the same pictures. Setup does take more time and patience with a VR headset—especially those trying to test and build their own cars and tracks.

Not having to remove a headset every five seconds simplifies setup.

The Value of Good Resolution

Even with the best VR headsets, the resolution is not quite as strong as a high-end screens, though the resolution around edges on a big screen sometimes seems a little blurry. This might not bother many, but the proximity to the display means chunky pixels can distract the eagle-eyed users.

As mentioned, the illusion has to be convincing enough to generate the sort of physical response that a real car would provoke. With low-detail scenery,  the ‘screen door effect,’ or the issue of recognizing the grid of pixels in the display, can prevent a driver from feeling completely immersed in the virtual environment. This and the need for longer sessions is what caused Geddes to move from a VR headset to a new 1080P projector for his long training sessions.

Fortunately, this distracting distortion seems to be mostly a thing of the past. This isn’t a major issue for Dominic Dobson, a racer whose resume includes Indy 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Pikes Peak. After retiring from professional motorsport, Dobson moved to start VR Motion, a company dedicated to training professional drivers in a number of different fields. The company name says it all, really.

Never once did they consider screens. The early VR tech wasn’t stellar, but it was able to convey the full experience of racing a car in a way screens struggled to. “The earlier headsets were pretty low-res, but everything on sale nowadays keeps most people convinced,” he says with confidence.

Getting Acclimated

However, getting acclimated to the VR intensity takes some time. “Maybe 15 percent to 20 percent of folks — most of whom are over 30 — get motion discomfort at first, but almost all of them are able to adjust. Only 5 percent or so wouldn’t ever get accustomed to it after a while. We just keep the first few sessions with the headset relatively short. As long as you bring them in slowly, most folks will adjust,” Dobson reports.

Real World Application

Dobson’s company has helped many along in racing. In fact, he used his own gear to prepare for his maiden attempt at Pikes Peak back in 2015. Because the course has 156 corners and little room for error, he had to make sure he was well prepared. Adding to the challenge, the schedule during the actual race weekend is hectic and practice time on the real hill is limited.

Prior to heading out to Colorado, he ran 22 full runs of the 12.5-mile course on his sim rig. Using his VR headsets, iRacing, and a hydraulically actuated seat, he had perhaps some of the most sophisticated equipment at his disposal. Therefore, the sensations felt through his sim seat and the behavior of the virtual Radical SR8 were realistic enough to have him feeling relatively relaxed — as relaxed as anyone can be when scaling a 14,114-foot peak on a few hours’ sleep — when it was time to do the real thing. Dobson ended up winning Unlimited Class—and only 10 seconds off the predicted time. Not too shabby!

It’s not certain which is best, but hopefully the strengths and limitations mentioned here help point the ambitious driver in the right direction. It’s fair to say the sense of location is strongest with the VR headset and the screen makes live training a little more pleasant. Too simplistic to be fair, but that assessment isn’t wrong.

The salient takeaway is that the sim simply can’t be ignored nowadays. Whether you’re playing iRacing through a screen or a headset, the benefits to any ambitious racer will be felt within a day of practicing. Take into consideration the practical limitations of your home, acquire the necessary gear, figure out your preferences, and get lapping — most everyone else who’s truly quick has been for some time already.

Image courtesy of Tommy Parry


  1. I started sim racing about 18 months ago, getting some of the best gaming goggles around. The immersion (looking down to see your body in the driving suit) is amazing. However, the weight on the forehead, the clearly visible screen effect, and the limited (120 degrees on mine, which is more than most) field of vision had me looking for alternatives. A 32″ triple screen setup solved all of the major problems I had with VR with only minor reductions in immersion (the peripheral vision of the monitors counters being able to look at the trees on the Kemel Straight at Spa in VR). The other side should have been better represented in this article.

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