Where Fantasy Meets Reality: Arcade Game OutRun Becomes a Car

August 8, 2011

11:30 am

Garnet Hertz has a love-hate relationship with technology. Lately you’ll find him teaching workshops on circuit bending to low-income children, but his portfolio also includes a robot controlled by a live roach, or roachbot, and a time-lapsed video exploring our addiction to television. So when he set out to turn a 1986 Sega arcade game into a vehicle, it was a bit of a joke—more art than engineering.

“It’s not meant to be practical,” says Hertz, an artist in residence and research scientist in informatics at the University of California-Irvine. “It’s completely dangerous and scary. It’s sort of like a dream gone wrong.”

This dream started while playing the OutRun driving game at an arcade in Santa Cruz, when Hertz realized that the game cabinet was almost as big as a car. With the help of his students, he transformed it into one, sporting a camera in front that helps the video game environment mimic the actual road. OutRun maxes out at 13 mph and is not meant to be driven in traffic because of its imperfect computer-vision system. This vehicle clearly won’t be outrunning anyone, but it was intended that way – inspired by the stories of drivers blindly following their GPS and ending up “way out in the sticks,” Hertz was trying to question the role of technology in our lives.

Hertz traces his ambivalence toward tech back to a “farm kid mentality”: he grew up on a farm in a remote part of Canada, and only tinkered with technology built from junked parts. “Technology is really seductive and really amazing and can do incredible things, but I also like poking fun at it,” says Hertz, who sees himself primarily as an artist.

But what started out as an art project ended up colliding with serious real-world applications. Hertz has been talking with a lab at UC-Irvine about developing a fun wheelchair-training system for disabled children, many of whom lack the motivation to learn. He toyed with the idea of an augmented reality app to make walking or driving more interactive, and car companies and individuals specializing in vehicle research and design have shown interest in the project.

Other companies have their own plans. Pioneer Corporation has been developing the Cyber Navi AVIC-VH09CS, planned for release in Japan in May 2011, which highlights nearby cars and landmarks on a large GPS screen. Similarly, Making Virtual Solid California’s InLand Mobile system projects a 3D display on your windshield to highlight upcoming turns and obstructions. Focusing on recreation, Toyota Motor Europe and the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design are collaborating on Windows to the World – they envision a car where passengers can draw on windows, zoom in on objects, see real-time translations of signs, and observe constellations on the roof. They showed off working prototypes at the Our Future Mobility Now exhibition in Brussels in June. And there’s always the promise of self-driving cars, with Google in the race.

OutRun is currently on its way to Denmark for the Aarhus Festival 2011 in late August, and Hertz says he’d love to sell it to Sega or Jay Leno. While he observes the progress of technology with a half-mocking attitude, augmented reality driving is speeding forward.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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