On a brisk November afternoon, a company called Holoride picked me up from Gizmodo’s Midtown Manhattan office in a new, metallic-blue Audi SUV. Holoride’s CEO Nils Wollny stepped out, well-coiffed and wearing a t-shirt branded with the word “Motorverse.” Grinning, he beckoned me into the car. “Are you ready?” he asked in a baritone German accent. I got in and buckled my seat belt, ready for a preview of an extremely specific vision of the future.
If you follow tech news, you’ve heard that Mark Zuckerberg pivoted his empire to building the Metaverse, a type of immersive virtual reality where you can work, socialize and play games. The Motorverse is Holoride’s interpretation. It’s a lot like the Metaverse, but as the name heavy-handedly implies, the Motorverse is designed to be experienced in a car—presumably from the passenger seat, or maybe the back, because you can’t wear a VR headset while you’re driving. Holoride invited me for a chance to be one of the first people to try this “revolution in in-car entertainment.” It’s the kind of offer you can’t turn down.
One major problem with the regular Metaverse is its limitation of however you can move your dumb body. Not so with Holoride’s Motorverse.
A VR ridealong: Big robots and Nikki Glaser
As we lurched through traffic on 6th Avenue, one of Holoride’s engineers walked me through my Motorverse experience. From the front seat, he handed me an HTC Vive Flow headset and a Playstation controller. Holoride makes software, not hardware, so the Motoverse relies on devices made by other companies. The most important device being the car.
I strapped on the headset, hit a few buttons, and there I was in the Motorverse. I opened up Cloudbreakers, Holoride’s flagship game. Suddenly, I was a giant humanoid robot, fulfilling a lifelong dream of mine.
My robot was floating in a virtual world, with graphics that might have impressed me 15 years ago, but kind of looked like they were filtered through a potato to my jaded 2022 eyes. The image was slightly grainy, and there were a lot of sharp edges. Visuals aside, it was immediately clear that I had a job to do. I was surrounded by a lot of other smaller bad-guy robots, attacking me in patterns that responded in unison to the movement of the car. The robots veered left and right as the car turned, advanced when we sped up, and new waves of enemies spawned when the car came to a stop. I hated these robots, and it was my responsibility to shoot lasers at them.
When you first open it up, the Motorverse isn’t much more than a floating menu, but after a minute you’ll notice that it moves in response to your driving. The system taps into sensors in your vehicle, which for now has to be an Audi, Holoride’s first automotive partner. The space you’re inhabiting in the Motorverse shifts in real time as your car speeds up, slows down, and leans into turns, allowing for new media formats the company calls “elastic content.” Characters or structures can pop up in a game in sync with the buildings you’re passing in the real world. A video you’re watching can gently center itself as the car jostles you around.
“For many people, being a passenger can feel like wasted time. But with Hololoride, suddenly the ride gets more fun and more productive,” Wollny told me as we sat in the back seat. “When you go on a Holoride, it’s more immersive because you have a themed environment you’re traveling through that is synchronized with the motion of the car. It’s a parallel universe, it can be anything! Think of applications for mental wellness or education. You can exit the car smarter and more relaxed than you entered it.”
It’s a bold claim. So is the technology, in theory if not in practice. As I was about to learn, the applications of that technology are limited for the time being, but it’s possible to picture it all in a more interesting form. Right now, a car isn’t a great place for computing. It’s an awkward space for laptop, and a phone is too small for any serious work or entertainment. Either way, you’re going to strain your neck after a while. In a sense, VR headsets could be an ideal solution, assuming Wollny can convince the passengers of the world to wear them, not exactly an easy sell.
“For us, the major differentiation is the way we define the Metaverse. It needs to have a tie in between digital reality and physical reality, because that’s where the magic happens,” Wollny said. “This is where I see the industry going. I think we are a very tangible example of the broader vision.”
I got the feeling that Cloudbreakers, the giant robot game, is optimized for speeding down the highway rather than the Manhattan traffic we were stuck in, because the game moved pretty slowly. The digital terrain shifted as the car heaved forward, but the effects weren’t particularly interesting. In stop-and-go traffic, we just weren’t moving much, which limited the opportunities for sweeping passages of gameplay to synchronize with the drive.
Wollny later told me that Cloudbreakers is linked up to GPS to allow for dynamically generated content on the fly, with towers and other elements in the game that pop up in relation to your car’s real-world position. From a technical perspective, that’s an impressive feat. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell it was happening, in part because I couldn’t see the buildings around me. I had a headset on, and we weren’t moving fast enough for the game to do its thing.
As promised, the Motorverse was immersive. I felt that brief moment of delight that comes with your first crack at a new technology. But at the same time, the game was dull. Its most promising features seemed blunted. Perhaps there’s more going on in the narrative story mode, but the version of Cloudbreakers I loaded up basically felt like VR Space Invaders. I didn’t find myself yearning for more when it was time to change gears.
To start, Holoride comes with several games: Cloudbreakers, retro-style games with names like Dynablaster, puzzle games like Einstein Brain Trainer and the story-based Bookful Tales. “We’ll release new titles every four to six weeks,” Wollny said. “We also differentiate between these fully immersive experiences, like Cloudbreakers, and the more casual games for shorter rides, as well as educational content and video streaming.”
After about 10 minutes of dispensing with evil robots, we switched gears and opened up the phone mirroring app. That’s right, Holoride lets you sync up your headset with an Android phone, so you can finally scroll Instagram in VR while in motion, just like you’ve always wanted to. My Holoride tour guide opened up Netflix on his phone and put on a Nikki Glaser comedy special, which floated in a phone-shaped window over a moving but mostly featureless landscape. Glaser isn’t my favorite standup, but it was definitely a better viewing experience than holding a phone in my hand. That said, the image wasn’t as crisp as it would be on my cellphone.
“It’s the largest TV screen you can get in the car, 180 inches, or 180 virtual inches,” Wollny said.
It didn’t take long after the special opened for me to start feeling carsick. Nausea is a problem for a lot of people when they’re using virtual reality headsets in their living rooms, let alone in a moving car. There’s something about the disconnect between your visual field and the physical sensations in the real world that upsets stomachs. Holoride swears they’ve accounted for this problem with the software’s motion-sensitive graphics. According to Wollny, Holoride actually decreases the likelihood of car sickness for people who normally feel it, because the things you’re seeing are synchronized with the g-forces affecting your body. Maybe it was something I ate.
Should you buy into the Motorverse?
If you want to experience the Motorverse for yourself, you’re going to need an Audi, and it has to be a new one stocked with the company’s MIB 3 entertainment system. That means your cheapest ticket to Motorverse is the 2023 Audi A4, starting at $39,900. You’ll also have to buy the Holoride package separately, because it’s not available at dealerships for now. Worse still, you actually can’t buy it in the US yet. Holoride launched in Germany and the UK this year, and it’s slated for the States in 2023. It costs €699 for the headset, the controller and access to the Holoroide platform, but only for a year. After that it’s a €19.99 a month subscription, less if you pay annually.
There’s also the fact that you can’t drive while you’re in the Motorverse. So the person paying for Holoride (and the car) probably won’t get to enjoy it—unless you have a very patient partner to act as chauffeur while you fight robots. In all likelihood, the early adopters of this technology are going to be kids. European kids, specifically.
With a Holoride of your own, you will probably have some fun. Is that amount of fun worth €699? That probably depends on whether or not your parents have a lot more money than I do. You can buy 3,280 Chicken McNuggets for that kind of money. Watching Nikki Glazer and shooting robots in VR was novel, but I might take the nuggets. Then again, I’m not the target audience. If you live in Germany and your parents are rich, make them buy this for you. It could be the perfect way to pass the time on those long trips down the Autobahn with mom and dad.
Holoride deserves some credit. This is a brand new product developed at a time when the Metaverse writ large is in its infancy. The technology here is cool, if a little buggy. Whether you believe in that cool factor enough to buy it now rather than wait for a better version is a question only you can answer. I can’t imagine the amount of engineering it took to seamlessly integrate the movement of a car with VR apps in real time. Cloudbreakers didn’t do much for me, but I can imagine a much more advanced video game using this platform, some sort of car-based Fortnite where the drive has a more dramatic impact on the strategy and game mechanics.
This platform could be pretty interesting one day if enough people buy it and developers start making apps that take full advantage of its automotive capabilities. That’s a big if. But for all the German little children in a position of wealth and privilege, Holoride might be a good addition to your Weihnachtsliste. The tech can only get better from here.
Less than an hour later, my ride in the Motorverse was over almost as soon as it started. Wollny gave me a lift back to Gizmodo’s office, and I took off the headset and got out of the car. Unlike my Motorverse robot, I had other things to do besides fight bad guys, like write this article, so I had to return to my desk.