The Challenge Of Perspective In Online Racing

At this week’s media preview for the 2012 Focus, Ford set out an entertainment option decidedly different from the free alcohol, complimentary top-shelf meals, and gorgeous PR people one normally finds at these events: a Gran Turismo game in 3-D. After just a few moments of watching one of my compatriots racing a Ferrari F40 against a field of compact sedans and falling behind by half a lap, I had to turn away from the screen. I have a fear of watching bad driving, even online, due to the remote possibility it could infect my brain… but it was also difficult for those of stuck in 2-D land to stay focused on the game without suffering a bit of headache or fuzzy vision.

Although the game was empty for most of the evening, I didn’t bother with it. I might have taken a shot had it been in 2-D, but the extra depth didn’t appeal to me, for precisely the same reason that video games of any kind rarely improve one’s real-world track driving. When operating a car at the proverbial limit, or close to it, the eyes operate differently. I’ll explain.

Human vision has some pretty amazing “widescreen” technology built right in. Your baby blues work with certain subroutines in the optic nerve system, resulting in a combination of fisheye-lens field of vision and remarkable ability to focus on small objects in that field of vision. The eye itself, however, isn’t that great. It sees some colors better than others. It has trouble detecting edges. And what it actually sees at any given time is a small amount of what you think you are seeing. If your eyes held perfectly still, chances are you wouldn’t even be able to see this entire screen. Luckily for you, the eyes are always in motion — except when they aren’t.

The phenomenon of the visual saccade creates the world we see. Our eyeballs are constantly in random motion, looking at one thing and another, with no well-defined pattern. They fill in small spaces of our visual field and the brain holds those spaces static until the eyeball updates that area again. Right now, you are “seeing” a remembered pattern composed of many small visual splotches. Imagine sitting drunk in a movie theatre, shooting paintballs at the screen. Then imagine you get caught. Ugh. Why did I do that? But if the cops didn’t intervene, you would eventually cover the entire screen with paint, just through the mechanics of random chance. The eyes work the same way, painting the screen of your mind with little splashes of sight.

The phenomenon of “tunnel vision” becomes easy to understand in this context. In situations of extreme terror, your muscles freezes — and the muscles of your eyes aren’t exempt from that rule. The visual updates outside a very small area fade and the brain paints them as empty. Your vision becomes restricted to the small patch your frozen eyes are communicating. On a racetrack, that leads to crashing, pronto.

I lead my students through a variety of vision-enhancing exercises, most of which I learned from Ross Bentley a few years ago. Your mind functions best when it has a lot of information available to it. The more you see, the faster you go, even if you are looking at things which your conscious mind believes to be irrelevant to the task at hand. On a racetrack, we are continually struggling to open up our field of vision, let the visual saccades do their thing, and feed our brain high-quality data.

Once we’re standing in front of an LCD screen, however, the game changes. The important visual field shrinks. We train ourselves subconsciously to cut down on the saccades and focus on the screen. Sometimes we don’t even see our girlfriends sitting next to us sulking. Okay, maybe we’re just not paying attention. But you get the idea. It’s negative reinforcement for your racing mind.

Adding 3-D to the picture just complicates things. Now we are forcing an artificial perspective on the situation. I hope you aren’t learning to pass cars by playing GT5. You’ll end up either rubbing a fender or leaving enough space for a competitor to punk you out. In the real world we need the fisheye vision.

Not that any of this mattered to my media pals. Not only are they not racers, most of them chose the old Pole-Position-style “three-quarter overhead view” where the whole car is visible. If you think that’s doing anything for your driving other than wasting the time you could be spending improving it, you are kidding yourself. Unless, that is, you race in a chair seated fifty feet above and behind your car — but I’m going to shut up about that before the SCCA makes it part of the safety regulations. My favorite parts of the 3-D racing world, the mayhem, destruction, and thunderous blood of the real racetrack, are already compromised enough.

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One Response to The Challenge Of Perspective In Online Racing

  1. Ronnie Schreiber says:

    Jack, some of the video racing championships are now offering track rides as part of the prize packages. It will be interesting to see how they do on a real track, even without other cars. I’d still put my money on the kid racing actual karts over someone with mad Mario Kart skillz. I offered the guy who won the UK Gran Turismo 3D competition a slot here to comment on video racing, we’ll see if he takes us up on the offer.

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