Innovation

Toyota is using Oculus Rift to educate drivers about distracted driving

In an effort to make drivers more aware of the dangers of not paying attention while driving, Toyota has launched a virtual reality distracted driving simulator as part of its TeenDrive365 campaign.

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Image: Toyota

Pavlov would be smug.

More than a hundred years after his famous classical conditioning experiment, which made dogs salivate at the ringing of a bell in anticipation of food, the most notable and common manifestation of his discovery might be the modern person and their cellphone.

The ding of a new text is nearly irresistible.

For drivers — especially younger ones — this strong temptation poses real danger. We've seen the PSAs, and seen the billboards... but one quick glance couldn't really hurt, right?

Toyota is hoping to educate drivers to avoid distractions like this one.

As part of Toyota's ongoing driving and safety campaign TeenDrive365, aimed at teenagers and parents, they've created a distracted driving simulator using virtual reality technology.

Participants get in an actual Toyota and put on an Oculus Rift headset, and just like that, they're in a car, driving down a city street with the radio on, a couple friends in the passengers seats, and cellphone begging to be checked while they're in motion.

If a car unexpectedly pulls out from in front of a truck and you're not totally tuned in, it's bad news — crunching headlights, a cracked windshield — but fortunately, no bodily harm done.

"By putting on the virtual reality glasses, you're doing it in a really safe environment and you're really seeing the impact of distractions like texting or picking up your phone would have in a real driving situation, and it's also a lot of fun," said Marjorie Schussel, corporate marketing director for Toyota.

In the simulator, participants can look all around the car, and sensors on the steering wheel and pedals translate what they're doing with their hands and feet into the experience.

To create the simulator, Toyota worked with New York City-based digital marketing agency 360i. Once they'd decided that Oculus Rift was the best technology for them to use, they also settled on software called Unity, which is a 3D application development tool, said Layne Harris, 360i's vice president of tech innovation and the lead technical director for the team that developed the simulator.

He said the great thing about Unity is the ease with which developers can add an Oculus point of view into a setting. In other words, if a developer purchases a setting, like a city, it's relatively painless to inject that first person Oculus viewpoint into it.

It's very rapid development, and provides plenty of opportunity to view the progress so far, which was important for 360i, given that it was working with a major brand.

"You want to have lots of opportunities for them to see how this is being developed, the graphical elements that are being used, we want to make sure that those are all referencing the brand properly and they actually work as expected," Harris said.

The simulator also makes use of sensors on the steering wheel and pedals.

"We used sensors that took advantage of an accelerometer which is something you'd find in any cell phone nowadays," Harris said.

An accelerometer can tell the orientation of the device it's attached to. Through careful calibration, handling the wheel, accelerating or hitting the brakes in the game is accurate and realistic.

On the whole, Harris said the development process was fairly seamless, despite the hard deadline of the International Auto Show. He credits this, in part, to the decision they made to mirror the working set up for everyone who was on the project, whether remote or in the office.

"We just duplicated exactly every single piece of hardware including the sensors and different things that we were using in the car," Harris said. They rigged toy steering wheels and toy pedals with the sensors so they could see through the process exactly how it was going to turn out.

In virtual reality, the visuals are obviously important, but one element that shouldn't be taken for granted is the sound design. Harris said they worked with 3D sounds specialists to create a sound design within the headset that's immersive in itself.

"You could have voices that are behind you, and they'd be very directional so you could definitely tell — even if you close your eyes that someone was behind you in the back seat and you can tell one seat from another based on just this very sophisticated 3D sound," Harris said.

He said that during the development process, being able to see the difference with and without sound proved to them the importance of having that 3D sound in the VR experience.

Toyota will be bringing the simulator to all the major auto shows across the country in 2015, including South by Southwest this March, Schussel said. A full list of upcoming events is posted in TeenDrive365.com.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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