One of the biggest selling points in iRacing for me is the laser-scanned tracks. As a sim-racer I may not benefit from knowing each bump and nuance of the real-world track, but knowing what I am driving from my living room is accurate down to the millimeter to what I see drivers racing on TV and in person adds to my experience overall.This unique and authentic feel that you can only get from laser-scanning adds so much to each track within the iRacing service.
Tony Gardner, president of iRacing.com, recently provided me with some insights to the process of how the company decided on laser-scanning, the process of signing tracks, what goes into the decision on what tracks are brought into the service for the members and the status of tracks signed, along with what could be coming down the road.
Q: First off what made iRacing decide on laser scanning tracks?
Tony Gardner (BELOW): When we started iRacing, a high priority was to make the tracks on par with the physics. If the physics are great but the tracks are not correct, than it is really not a true simulation and frankly makes accurate physics less meaningful. Therefore, getting the tracks physically and visually spot on and millimeter accurate in terms of the surface, the bumps etc, is very important to us. Even things like objects are extremely important to make a track visually perfect for a driver. For example, although there are some great driving games available, something often does not feel quite right while you are driving those games. Often times that is caused by more than the just the physics. It comes from the objects and tracks not being scaled properly so although they may look good in a static situation, when driving at high speed you almost get an awkward sensation. Anyway, Dave Kaemmer headed-up this effort to look for the best possible solution to accurately simulate tracks visually as well as physically.
Actually, let's take a step back to help understand why laser-scanning a track is so important to us. What did Dave's old company, Papyrus do before laser-scanning and what many other companies still do? Well, it was basically a lot of estimating based on information available. Papyrus took it very seriously and actually went to the tracks to get them as close as possible. They would go to a track with a measuring wheel and level and simply measure everything they could. For example, measure the width of track, measure the elevation changes, where a curb is in relation to everything else or measure how tall a building is, etc. Also they would use photographs to try and piece everything together. If they were lucky, they might also get their hands on a topo map if the track had available. They would take all this information and using track building tools patch everything together best they could, but at the end of the day there was some estimating going on and frankly human error involved.
That was OK in getting a track to look pretty close to the real thing, at least as far as the graphics and computing speed of the day would let you, but it fell far short of physically and visually simulating the track. We felt it was critical to come up with something much better. It was not the case that we knew exactly that laser-scanning was the answer. We didn't know what would be best. We tested a bunch of things, including mounting cameras to cars to try and get a true picture of the track from the driver's perspective, then trying to figure a way import that or do something with that complete picture of the track.
We looked at a number of other photographic methods for a while. Some companies had developed technologies using photographic methods that you could possibly import or build a model from that. None of the photographic methods turned out to be that great. We looked at lidar from airplanes and other things as well. However laser-scanning looked to be the most promising and have the most potential so we kept coming back to that. We had laser-scanning reps come and we explained what we were trying to do. Not surprisingly, the sales reps immediately felt they had the perfect solution for us so long as we could figure out a way to convert the massive 3d data scan to a full point cloud of the track. Based on our own research and them trying to convince us, we decided to hire a contractor from Leica to scan Lime Rock park for us. It was great of Lime Rock to let us do it at the time as a complete experiment. The Leica contractor scanned about 34 hours straight and the iRacing team was pretty excited about it at the time because they could see the potential of laser scanning.
The team was down there at the track for the scan and at the same time we started to get trained on how to do the scanning ourselves should this work. I think it was more out of curiosity that we started to get trained, as we had a bunch of technical people at that scanning headed-up by Dave K. We were not sure we could make it work at the time. Shawn Nash, one of our engineers who seems like he can make anything work somehow, was mainly responsible for figuring out how to take that massive data file and make a program to convert the data to work with our proprietary track tools. I am over simplifying it, but it worked! We came out with a perfect digital representation of the track and objects. From that point there is still a the whole track building process which takes months that our members have probably heard about or seen videos of featuring Greg Hill, who heads-up our art and production teams. We have a group super talented people, all with different skills that work on each track and there are a lot of steps getting to the finished product you see including some incredible art work that puts the vital finishing touches on each track. Once we finished this test and it worked so well, we went out and bought our own scanners (big money initially) and started doing it ourselves because it was more efficient than using contractors.
Actually, I should mention we then took this another giant step forward from the old days. Not only did we visually model the tracks perfectly, but we also connected the tracks directly to the physics so, essentially, you are driving on a perfect point cloud of the actual track and feeling everything and having the car react to everything on the track to millimeter accuracy. We actually have moved much further than we originally intended or thought possible, and are light years ahead of where any simulation was even five years ago in this regard. I think to this day we are the only ones with laser-scanned tracks although some companies are starting to do a few or considering doing them here and there.
The way we do the laser scans is also unique, more detailed and more time consuming than the way even an F1 team might laser-scan a track for their in-house sim. It is an expensive and time consuming endeavor to create tracks the way we do them, along with developing all the technology and process that goes with it, so I'm not sure laser-scanned tracks will ever be an industry standard. But it will always be an iRacing standard.
Laser-scanning "will always be an iRacing standard."
Anyway, it's pretty cool I guess that we really started this and that people appreciate the difference it makes in a simulation. In the future I see us working further on the actual various physical surfaces of the tracks along with working more on the tracks' visual realism. It will be cool to think what all this will look like even two or three years from now with continuous advancements of computing speed and techniques for creating tracks and cars.
Q: What is the normal time line for signing a track, from the beginning of talks to a deal being signed? Are international tracks harder to sign than tracks within the United States?
It could take years or it could take a week. International tracks are typically harder to sign. Countries often have different standard legal language, there's less chance they know who we are so we're starting from scratch; there are language and time zone barriers, so it's more difficult to meet face to face, etc.