Gentlemen, start your scanners: On May 5th, iRacing.com Motorsport Simulations announced the beta version of its web–based simulation and racing service. According to Scott McKee, iRacing’s vice president of marketing, commercial release is just a few weeks away.
What does this have to do with 3D laser scanning and why should our engineering readers pay attention? Buckle up and read on.
iRacing serves up a simulated racing experience over the internet to both professionals who race in the physical world and simracers, hobbyists who simultaneously race each another over the internet. The company aims to deliver many of the benefits currently realized by Formula One teams with proprietary, seven figure simulation suites. McKee says anyone with an up-to-date PC and a $250 steering-wheel-and-pedal set (Logitech G25s from Amazon are popular) can get behind the wheel. Entry level pricing for the simulation service is just $13/month.
The company’s engineers have scanned 44 race tracks using the Leica HDS 3000 — 20 of these tracks will be ready at launch. The company’s digital track inventory includes superspeedway ovals such as Daytona International Speedway, Lowe’s Motor Speedway (Charlotte, NC), Atlanta Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway; short oval tracks such as Martinsville Speedway, South Boston, Toyota Speedway at Irwindale (CA) and Stafford Motor Speedway; and a selection of road circuits ranging from Infineon Raceway (Sonoma, CA), Road America, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Summit Point Motorsports Park (WV); Virginia International Raceway, and Lime Rock Park (CT). All told, the company has licensed more than 60 tracks in the U.S. and Europe, including all but two of the tracks where NASCAR’s Sprint Cup competes.
They’ve also modeled (and in some cases scanned) eight race vehicles ranging from a street-legal road-racing Pontiac Solstice, a Skip Barber SB2000 racing school single-seater, to an 800-horsepower, 1,650-pound, open-wheel, Silver Crown oval-track racer.
Why scan? According to to iRacing’s CEO, Dave Kaemmer, the only way to get the accuracy and level of detail required is to scan and combine the scan data with digital photographs. Using only GPS, video and satellite information and other techniques is inadequate for the company’s requirements. “The true nature of a race track is revealed in the bumps, minor camber changes and other subtle details,” said Kaemmer, who won nearly 20 races in the Skip Barber Racing Series during a multi-year competition career and once held the Lime Rock Park lap record for the series. “To really learn a race track, a driver needs a very accurate ‘sight picture’ from the cockpit. Laser scanning, which provides millimeter precision, is the key to providing that. The point cloud from the laser scan is the skeleton for a representation of the track that has stunning verisimilitude.”
The company uses Leica’s Cyclone software to register the scan data and then exports the data to its proprietary tools for processing. To get real time performance – this is racing after all – the track builder loads and unloads local model data into memory based on the distance to the vehicle. iRacing’s software also organizes racers according to their experience and safety record.
iRacing’s core technology also includes a physics engine with a proprietary tire model to simulate vehicle dynamics. Kaemmer and Ian Berwick, who heads iRacing’s racecar engineering department, collected data for the model by testing real racing tires on a 75,000-pound test rig at the Calspan Tire Research Facility in Buffalo, NY. According to Kaemmer, “Race-tire technology remains something of a black art…no matter how accurately the track and the car are represented, the simulation experience won’t be ‘right’ unless the tire model is accurate. Our goal is to go beyond curve-fitting to a model that is actually predictive.”
To be useful as a simulation tool for racers preparing for a race on a physical track requires both detail and accuracy. Drivers take their braking cues, for example, from fine track markings or objects beside the track – they have to be in the right place in the driver’s field of view. The company reports that its beta users say that using the system is equivalent to getting the first practice set completed.
As track time can cost upwards of $30,000/hour, simulation economics make sense too. Not only is track time expensive, supply is scarce on race weekends. Time spent on familiarizing drivers with the track is time that’s not available for fine-tuning the car for the race. Ryan Dalziel and Henri Zogaib drove their SAMAX BMW Riley Daytona Prototype to victory at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca last month following hours spent with the iRacing simulator. Zogaib had neither driven nor visited the track prior to the race except virtually and had just six physical laps of the challenging circuit under his belt before his qualifier.
Kaemmer co-founded iRacing with Boston Red Sox owner and ardent simracer, John Henry. Kaemmer previously founded Papyrus Design Group, where he was involved with other simulation video game titles including Grand Prix Legends and Indianapolis 500: The Simulation and has a background in mathematics and racing. Henry’s Fenway Sports Group partnership with Roush Racing has 13 NASCAR racing teams.
The business model for iRacing is every bit as intriguing as the company’s use of technology. The company has non-exclusive agreements with International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motor Sports, Inc. which own all but two of the NASCAR tracks. iRacing owns the digital models. What’s in it for the track owner? According to Steve Potter, iRacing’s director of communications and formerly the vice president and general manager at Lime Rock Park, community and eyeball potential are important, particularly when it comes to getting sponsorship and broadcasting revenues. For tracks that that host top-tier racing series such as NASCAR sponsorship and broadcasting revenues exceed ticket sales at the track by a wide margin. Of course, the upfront investment for the simulation is borne entirely by iRacing, not by the track owner. It looks like iRacing has found a new way to keep the most enthusiastic champions of the sport coming back to the track – virtually!
Anyone who’s ever visited Fenway Park to see the Boston Red Sox knows that John Henry’s team is among the world’s best in sports event marketing. Every molecule within a five block radius of Fenway has the signature logo. I’m certain we can expect to see some very creative marketing from the iRacing team; the simulation environment offers rich opportunities for embedded product placement and linkages. Who knows, perhaps running the digital asset will be every bit as lucrative as the managing the physical asset.I hope John Henry has a word with New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft about this technology. Perhaps the next generation of Madden NFL will incorporate scans of Gillette Stadium and scanned avatars of the most enthusiastic fans.
Why should engineering, construction and manufacturing managers pay attention to what’s going on the entertainment world? For starters, high fidelity 3D simulation environments are where design, construction, and asset management solutions are headed. At SPAR 2008 earlier this year, Chevron’s Kevyn Renner pointed out that his firm competes with Google for talent in the Bay Area of California. If you want to attract the best people, particularly young people, you’d better have the best tools, and the more 3D tools, the better. Situational awareness is key to the safe operation of a plant; it’s of the essence on a race track. Chevron’s Refinery Asset Virtualization Environment is designed to be role-based, intuitive, and founded in accurate 3D geometry captured with laser scanners.
In the transportation sector, there is a long record of innovation in safety and performance migrating from the race track to the road. Will the physical world imitate the simulation? Of course it will. That’s where design comes. We have every reason to expect that today’s simulation tools will be harnessed for tomorrow’s driver assistance capabilities.