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Mini mind-bender

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THE SIGHT of a non-descript, exposed patch of earth greets our group of journalists who have arrived aboard pure-electric Mini Countryman vehicles. It’s a short drive from our hotel in Sitges just outside of Barcelona in Spain, where eight batches of media and content creators from all over the world are billeted for the international media launch (and drive) of the all-new Mini Cooper Electric. More on that in a coming article.

There’s an interesting sidelight to the main agenda. Mini’s bright minds have come up with what they call Mini Mixed Reality, where “drivers can immerse themselves in a unique journey through the Mini universe while behind the wheel of a Mini, all through the power of virtual reality.”

It sounds so exciting and cutting edge and, to be honest, not quite what we expected as we regard the dirt “circuit” in front of us, while sipping hot chocolate made on the spot by a gentleman in a food truck. He also serves, among other things, chicharon. But I digress.

There are only two Minis (both new Cooper Electric units) in the whole world that are equipped to showcase this technology still in its development stage. Both vehicles are now in Spain to help spread the word about this Mini project that is not so, well, mini.

Making the rounds today is “Jim” (the other car is called Jill, by the way). We spy the participant driver with VR (virtual reality) goggles strapped on, given instructions by tech expert Daniel Zimmermann in the front passenger seat. There are several traffic cones in the circuit, but that’s it, and only clearly defined treadmarks show where each of us should drive.

The thing is, we don’t even have to be looking at the road — the real one, anyway — when we drive.

Okay, let’s start from the beginning.

I hop aboard the car in funky green and black wrap (I thought it was camouflaged, actually) and greet Daniel, who helps me put on the VR goggles. A tracking device, suction-cupped to the windshield, monitors my head movement. I hear Mr. Zimmermann typing on the QWERTY keyboard I spied earlier, then asks me to start the Mini’s motor and move to the starting line.

At this point, I can still see everything in the real world. “One second, while I start the experience,” he says. “Welcome to the Mini Mixed Reality, a journey through the minds of our designers,” a voice says. And just when I wonder what’s going to happen, a few more keystrokes from Daniel later, the screen on the VR delivers a high-resolution, arcade-game-like image once I reach the start area.

I am transported to this cartoonized urban setting, with lots of Mini branding, and dynamic elements. Daniel prods me to step on the power and hit the digital road. Large playing cards dart out of the way as the vehicle approaches them; the same thing happens with yellow discs with waffle patterns, along with oversized hockey pucks. Brightly colored balls appear, and “bounce off” as the Mini “hits” them. This brief drive also features surreal sections of rainbow-colored streets, and even one where I spy a whale nonchalantly “swimming” past me. A voice cheers me on.

But by far the most challenging portions are those where the “street” and “environment” are supplanted by outer space. I know for a fact that I’m negotiating a dirt road, but my mind is confused by the visual cues it’s getting. For a split-second I hesitate to go further, then continue stepping on the accelerator past this section.

“It’s part of the experience. We work with sound, immersive technology, colors, and so on,” later says Mini Mixed Reality Developer Martin Höpfinger in an exclusive interview with “Velocity.”

“We also consider the feedback from other participants, and one told me that she was afraid of falling off the street. That shows me that we kind of did a good job here because within a second these participants are in this virtual world, and they believe what they see and hear and what they feel,” he continued.

Mini predicates the technology on a gaming computer (which takes its place in the back seats and the trunk), and employs GPS tracking to ascertain real-time location. There are a lot of secret things going on as well that Mini won’t tell us just yet.

The most important thing, of course, is to know what the end-game for Mini Mixed Reality is. Aside from being loads of fun, the innovation, continued Mr. Höpfinger, runs true to the BMW Group’s aspiration to be a technology leader.

“We want to have new products and so on,” he added. “We also could use this technology for the development, for example, of automated driving. There are many things that we could do.”

This much we can surmise: This melding of the real and the virtual can lend itself to use cases such as training beginner drivers, or even those with, say, a race to run. We’ve now seen that you can customize a track even if you only have access to an open patch of earth.

For now, Mini’s engineers are enjoying this tech flex which has been two years in the making — and we certainly can expect to see more of it in the not-too-distant future.

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