I Drove a Real-Life BMW M2 on a Virtual Racetrack and Survived – Car and Driver
Wearing a VR headset and wheeling the new M2 on a closed course, I tried BMW’s mind-bending M Mixed Reality.
Driving a real car while wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset is almost always a terrible idea. I say almost always because there’s a time when not only is it okay, but it’s also a totally great (if surreal) experience. And I have the receipts—in the form of this video—to prove it.
BMW calls its mind-bending creation "M Mixed Reality." It’s basically a driving simulator, but instead of the typical stationary devices that display virtual racetracks and mimic real-world feedback, the mixed-reality experience lets users drive on a virtual racetrack in a real car in a real environment. In this case, it’s the recently revealed 2023 BMW M2 at the brand’s M Driving Academy in Maisach, Germany.
Wearing the VR headset while driving might look like a scene from the Sandra Bullock flick Bird Box, but I wasn’t actually driving blind. The headset allowed me to see reality until the virtual part was mixed in. I also had BMW M engineer Alexander Kuttner riding shotgun, providing directions and guidance. Fortunately for Kuttner, he had a brake pedal on his side in case things went off the rails.
What admittedly sounds like a questionable concept is actually super entertaining and largely accessible, as long as you’re like me and don’t suffer from motion sickness. Having logged countless hours playing racing video games as well as having prior VR experience also helped. Despite those advantages, it still took me a moment to get my bearings. Never before had I found myself wearing a bulky VR headset when sitting behind the wheel of a real car with 453 horsepower at the disposal of my right foot.
Once I was strapped into the safety harness in the M2’s driver’s seat and the VR headset was strapped to my skull, Kuttner directed me to follow a set of cones toward a designated spot on the runway of the old U.S. military base that BMW now uses for its driving academy. The flat asphalt surface and clear surroundings provided a perfect closed course, which is a necessity for this type of thing.
When I reached the loading zone, Kuttner activated the mixed-reality sequence, and like Neo in The Matrix I was transported into a new kind of reality where what I did in the virtual world had real-life consequences. However, I didn’t just survive this experience, I thrived as soon as the virtual environment appeared before my eyes and a disembodied female voice began giving orders.
The rules were simple: It’s a time-trial race where the fastest lap wins (although I had no clue what times I was competing against). The digital racetrack I drove on featured a simple figure-eight configuration. For an extra challenge, holographic walls popped up on either side of the track and had to be avoided to receive a time bonus. There were also floating "time coins" with BMW roundels inside that were scattered around the course like item boxes in Mario Kart. Unfortunately, driving through them only unlocked a time bonus rather than a shootable shell or a slippery banana.
As soon as the game said "GO!" I kicked the M2’s throttle and felt the familiar sensation of acceleration, yet in front of me was a road with glowing barriers and floating coins. I could also hear the car’s tires actually scrambling over loose debris on the road surface and the twin-turbo 3.0-liter straight-six snarling up the rev range. Despite the unmistakably digital world in front of me, the feedback I received from the car made it all feel so incredibly real. Almost instantly, I felt comfortable in the driver’s seat and wanted to set the quickest lap time possible, forgetting that poor Kuttner was still sitting next to me.
With the VR headset tracking my vision and head movements, I was able to see my surroundings whenever I wanted just like in a real car. While I saw the M2’s real dashboard and my hands on the real steering wheel, everything else I saw was a virtual perspective. The technology also captures the car’s actual movements and transmits them into what I was seeing. It’s this blending of digital visual cues with real-life gravitational forces that makes M Mixed Reality feel so surreal, and it’s something I’ve never experienced in a driving simulator before.
I hope to get another chance someday, because I only had the opportunity to do one warmup lap and one hot lap before I had to head back to the makeshift pits. Still, it was easily the coolest thing I’ve done in a while and something that I hope BMW will take from mixed reality to actuality.
Earlier this year, BMW debuted its M Mixed Reality technology, but it was only last week during a trip to Germany with the automaker that I had the opportunity to try it. There, BMW M CEO Frank van Meel told me the mixed-reality tech is ideal for training racing drivers because of how much more immersive it can be compared with even the most advanced driving simulators.
Of course, I can think of much broader uses for BMW’s innovative tech than simply a tool to teach professional drivers. How about a training method for first responders or even first-time drivers? The possibilities seem endless. On a more philosophical level, M Mixed Reality effectively showcases how the digital world and real world can be successfully merged.
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