Opinion | The role of haptics in simulated motorsport training

Stephane Vidal, vice president of product and brand at D-Box Technologies, explores how technology in sim racing has evolved and how it is set to revolutionise the motorsport industry moving forward.

As the sport of sim racing evolves, so too does the preferred technology of the industry’s top racers.

Gone are the days of static racing in rigs that don’t provide any motion or vibration cues to the driver — sim racers want their virtual experience to be as close as possible to the real thing, so they’ve begun to seek out rigs outfitted with haptic technology.

Even with the industry’s rapid growth, few know exactly what it means for a rig to utilise haptics and why it’s great to have a haptic rig as a powerful tool in your sim racing arsenal.

This article explores the basics of haptic technology, its benefits in sim racing, and how this revolutionary innovation creates advantages for professional drivers everywhere.

What are haptics?

Haptic technology, in short, is when technology physically touches and moves users in a way that communicates a specific message to them.

Haptics rely on the somatosensory system and the sense of touch to communicate its message, and the sensations produced by haptic technology aim to realistically recreate the sensations that the user would feel if they were truly interacting with the object in question.

For example, hitting the brakes in a sim racing rig will replicate the real-world feeling of doing so as closely as possible for whoever is driving, making the simulated racing experience all the more real, as opposed to just a static experience with visual and audio cues.

This realism is added through a haptic system consisting of an actuator. Each system can have between two and seven actuators, with the average being four.

They can typically be located on each corner of a rig to replicate the vehicle’s wheels and suspension independently.

These actuators send an extremely precise combination of movements, tilts, vibrations, and textures to the rig and to the driver, allowing them to feel extremely subtle cues such as rocks on the track’s surface, oversteering, and understeering.

Benefits of haptics in sim racing

While haptic feedback has many uses and benefits in sim racing, there are three primary ones.

The main and most important benefit is that the realism of your sim racing experience skyrockets when using a haptic rig.

Since haptic feedback is capable of combining different frequencies and sending them to the driver at the same time, it makes for an ultra-realistic experience.

This allows drivers to feel a range of sensation, from little things such as bumps in the track to the big forces experienced when entering a corner at high speeds.

This realism and precision provided by haptic feedback gives drivers the benefit of an extra layer of communication that those using a static rig don’t have.

Without haptics in a simulator, drivers lose the layer of information that flows through their entire body and that alerts them to upcoming issues or challenges on the track, such as a change in track texture or weather conditions altering the track. Using a haptic system on your rig is without a doubt the closest you can get to recreating the sensations of driving a real car.

Finally, while having a haptic system requires a one-time installation fee, those who use haptic sim racing rigs as a training tool will see a lot of their training costs dissipate. Haptic systems largely eliminate the fees required to rent a track, a vehicle, and any fees incurred by making a mistake (as all drivers eventually do) that damages the vehicle.

If you damage a real vehicle while training, it can be expensive, but on a haptic sim rig, you get to just reload the track and start over until you get it right, allowing the driver to truly challenge the limits of the car and of themselves before hitting the real track.

Haptics for professional drivers

While haptics aren’t yet universally adopted by professional drivers, there are many who have begun training on haptic rigs who are vocal about the benefits that they’ve noticed.

For example, World Rally Championship (WRC) driver Louise Cook, Nascar driver Anthony Alfredo, WRC driver Mathieu Baumel, Nascar stock driver Hailie Deegan, and professional sim racer Mark Puc all use haptic technology to train for race day.

Louise Cook training on her sim racing simulator at home during the pandemic

Having haptic technology at their disposal means that they can train in multiple types of cars, making them a more versatile driver.

Also, the subtle and granular feedback provided by haptics allows them to become one with their simulator, allowing them to get a better understanding of their vehicle.

This symbiosis between man and machine not only ultimately decreases their lap times, but allows professional drivers of all kinds to get a realistic feel for a track before a race.

The future of haptics in sim racing

In the future, sim racing is going to become more and more mainstream as more professional drivers adopt it as a training tool — and will also help grow motorsport overall.

Saving on the costs is a major reason why this will happen: sim racing (and sim racing lounges) will make professional training accessible to people on all different kinds of budgets; not just to professionals on a private or closed track.

If training tools become more accessible to the general public, then more people will be able to try the experience for themselves—allowing for more and more people to try the sport professionally.

There’s a reason why reigning Formula One world champion Max Verstappen said that he owed his title in part to this dedication to racing simulation.

Sim racing lounges with haptic simulators are also expected to grow in popularity, and they’ll be used not only for recreation, but to recruit real-life drivers who have potential they may not have even known about.

While real-life racing will take off for people of all backgrounds thanks to sim racing, so will sim racing as an esport.

Since more and more places are adopting haptic technology as the norm in the industry, we've already begun seeing more in-person sim racing competitions taking place, offering bigger and bigger cash prizes as time goes on.

The countless benefits of haptics

With its ability to grow the sport of sim racing and motorsports overall from both a driver and a spectator point of view, haptic technology will only continue to evolve and expand as time goes on.

There will eventually be a time where static rigs will be a thing of the past, and the industry will be working on how to use haptics to further close the gap between simulation and reality.

As sim racing technology evolves, D-Box will evolve with it.

Already offering sim racers the only haptic system to be licensed by the International Automobile Federation (FIA), D-Box uses its 20 years of experience to bring simulated motorsport to a new level and to growing the sport overall.