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Sandboxes and road safety - the evolution of virtual reality

Can virtual reality gaming technology be a realistic tool in the evolution of the safe driving experience? While it's capabilities for turning childhood dreams in a virtual reality are being heavily utilised, road safety campaigners are also putting its capabilities to the test.

Sandpit drivers, make your childhood dreams a reality

To promote the new Q5 model, Audi has developed the "Enter Sandbox" experience. Made in partnership with Norwegian creative agency POL and production company MediaMonks, Audi Norway's manager of marketing described it as "a state-of-the-art toy for kids and adults".

Users at a specialist facility take to a large sandbox where they can shape their own 'dream' track, building jumps and sand dunes to their own design. This track is then scanned by a depth-sensing camera, which is able to measure each bump and curve in the sand. From this scan, the terrain is rendered in a computer programme.

Then, via a VR headset, the user is able to see the "sandbox world' they've made and take a test drive around it in an Audi Q5, using a gamer's steering wheel and pedals.

Although it's essentially an elaborate advert for the off-road capabilities of the Q5, Audi's Enter Sandbox experience also shows how far VR technology has come. MediaMonk's creative director, Tom Eriksen, said that it was important to make sure everything from the look of the driving environment to the feel of the steering wheel and its feedback when a user hits the sand is believable.

The possibilities of virtual reality in road safety

VR is still very much a new technology, but now the door has been opened, the opportunities the technology could provide seem widespread and exciting.

The realism offered by the Enter Sandbox experience demonstrates how VR is revolutionising driving simulators. But while Audi's latest innovation is all about having fun, VR headsets may have a crucial role to play in road safety education.

Over recent years, a few examples of VR being used as a teaching tool have arisen. In October 2016 Leicestershire Fire and Rescue service used VR technology to dramatise the consequences of dangerous driving to young drivers. When the 'driver' put on the VR headset, they saw a video simulating the aftermath of a collision; the young driver was able to watch themselves receiving treatment from the emergency services.

Last month (February 2017) West Midlands Fire Service released a 360 degree video used to highlight the risks associated with pedestrians using their mobile phones or having headphones on while crossing a road. The user was dropped right in the centre of the aftermath of an accident to see how the actions of a distracted pedestrian could impact on other road users.

And this same idea has been used around the world. In the US, VR headsets demonstrated the dangers of checking your phone while driving to students at the University of Maryland.

Such experiences often have a powerful effect on young drivers and those waiting to learn to drive, because they are thought to be a more effective way of communicating the risks than a simple lecture.

With virtual reality, road safety campaigns could be revolutionised.

They offer a realistic, highly immersive experience to users, and it's easy to see how, in a similar way to black box car insurance, VR could catch on as an effective way of improving the safety of our roads.