(Update 12/3/19: portions of this project are described under Patent US10493363B2)
I’ve hacked together a first person driving experience that uses a natural steering wheel to control an RC car. The experience is a lot like playing a Racing Kart game IRL. It’s probably easier to understand if you see it in motion. Check it out:
I got the idea for this project while watching my three-year-old son play with his radio controlled toy cars. These all use the conventional two joysticks. The left is isolated to vertical movement to control the motor and the right stick is isolated to horizontal movement to control the turning direction of the front wheels.
As a toddler, my son tends to only meaningfully control one stick at a time. It’s probably too sophisticated for him to infer that directing the car to a diagonal means he needs to press the left stick forward and combine that with the right stick’s sensitivity. What’s interesting, though, is that he has no such difficulty driving his big power wheel. Same operations but different interface. It has a natural steering wheel, a gas pedal, and a shifter to control direction. It got me thinking: what if RC car’s could be controlled by natural steering wheels too?
I quickly realized that having a more natural controller isn’t enough. Without locking my son’s orientation to the car’s, I would just be recreating the struggle I had with the arcade game Super Sprint. I could never tell if turning the wheel left was moving the avatar screen left/right/up/down. Luckily, with the rise of drone racing, I could simply mount an FPV camera and place the monitor as if it were a windshield or wear it directly on my face.
The combination of a natural steering wheel controller and visual feedback directly from the car itself makes for a really compelling experience. The perspective is really novel and the scale magnifies the intensity of speed. It can feel like travelling at 300 mph, but at the same time, everyone who has picked it up can deftly control the car within minutes. It’s a lot more approachable than a drone. Who knows, with autonomous cars on the horizon, maybe this is how the joy of driving is preserved?
I had a lot of fun making, breaking, and remaking this rig. I learned a lot about electronics in the process and it’s been really fun sharing the experience with friends, and now with you!