You'd think the development of what is likely the first computerized driving simulator with actual computer-generated visuals would be a big deal. An achievement like that would have set the standard for not just simulators, but would have been the genesis of every first-person driving game since. Which is why it's so odd VW doesn't remember doing it.
Even if Volkswagen doesn't remember doing it, from the information I've been able to gather from many, many months of off-and-on again research (there's almost nothing about it, really, on the public internet), they certainly seem to have been the first to do anything like it. I'm fairly certain that Volkswagen's driving simulator, Der VW-Fahrsimulator, is the first of the modern era of driving simulators, fully computer-controlled and with computer-generated visuals.
I believe also that Volkswagen's simulator, which seems to have been developed around 1972, is the direct and traceable ancestor of every driver's-point-of-view video game, from Pole Position to Forza Horizon.
I've written about the history of racing games here before, and I've also claimed to have found the source of first-person driving games before. I think I was wrong, and the seeds of why I was wrong are what led me down the path to discover the Volkswagen Driving Simulator.
When I was researching the 1976 game Nürburgring, developed by Dr. Renier Foerst, (which was later copied by Atari to create Night Driver) I saw a reference to a Volkswagen driving simulator that inspired Dr. Foerst. This VW simulator was said to use an oscilloscope for its visual displays, and very little was known about it. There was only one picture of the system, and even that wasn't absolutely verified.
I was hooked.
I had to know more about this Volkswagen simulator. This was what inspired the man who made that first driving game. That simulator was what he was copying, just like Night Driver and all those other games in turn copied Dr.Foerst. This VW simulator seems to be the root of everything. Well, where "everything" is racing video games.
Unfortunately, there is almost no information on this simulator online whatsoever. I find this surprising, since a system like what this was back in 1972 would have been a very big deal. Think about the context of 1972: the first microprocessor (Intel's 4004) was just one year old. Atari's Pong had just been developed, a knockoff of Magnavox's Odyssey from that same year. Computers were still huge metal cabinets with spinning reels of tape that nobody had in their homes, and there sure as shit weren't any driving games.
But I couldn't find any details of this remarkable machine online. That's okay, I figured, I'll contact Volkswagen directly. I got in touch with the people who run VW's archives over in Germany, and received this response to my queries:
Dear Mr Torchinsky,
Thanks for your mail dated 17 June which was forwarded by Eberhard Kittler to Volkswagen Corporate History Department on 21. June.
We have done some research in our archives and could identify an article from the magazine "Automobil Revue" Nr. 52 from 11. December 1969, which informs about GM`s driving simulator. The article is called "Die Illusionsmaschine – GM driving simulatorkopiert die Wirklichkeit" (The Illusion-Machine – GM Driving Simulator Copies Reality). It says in the article that the driving simulator would copy the interior of a Chevrolet Nova but was able to copy any other interior of any other car. GM engineers are quoted to have said that this was already a second generation of driving simulators. So GM must have had driving simulators some years earlier than 1969 and worked with a new and second generation already in 1969.
Unfortunately we could not identify any records or publication telling us anything about a Volkswagen driving simulator. As the archives was founded in 1997 a lot of documents and records were already lost when the archives could start working so that we ask for your understanding that we cannot provide you with more information.
We hope that this information will be helpful to you.
Dr. Manfred Grieger Dr. Ulrike Gutzmann
Corporate History Department
Volkswagen Group Communications
Incredibly, VW's own people had more information about a GM driving simulator of the same era. The GM simulator, while sophisticated, seemed to use an older, film/video-based method for the visuals. I was interested in real, on-the-fly computer-generated graphics, since that's what led to what would become true driving games.
So, sadly, a pair of PhDs from VW's own archives in Germany were no help. I was sort of stuck and floundering for a long while, until I finally found a reference to an article in a German trade magazine, Automobiltechnische Zeitschrift (ATZ), the February 1974 edition. Now I just had to figure out how to actually get the article.
I explored all manner of useless leads to try and get the article, until I finally reached out to an old friend (and my 9th grade prom date), Marian, who now has some important job in NC State's library system. 30 minutes later I had an email with a scan of the article, thanks to the secret global cabal of librarians.
Jackpot. The journal had a nice, meaty article on the VW driving simulator, with diagrams and everything. Happily, our own Raphael knows enough German to translate for me, which means that I can now confirm that, yes, Volkswagen had what may have been the worlds's most advanced, non-military driving simulator. Without getting too absurdly technical, let me take you through exactly what this remarkable machine was.
First off, it's clearly derived from aerospace simulators that have been in development since the 1950s. Really, almost all driving simulators can trace their origins back to those. There are, of course, some key conceptual differences between flight sims and driving sims, as they say in the ATZ article:
... flight simulators are for training experts in the use of a complicated device, the driving simulator is for statistic measurements of a normal driver...
That thought is a pretty cogent point, if you think about it, and that fundamental concept helps define exactly what this machine (and all automotive driving simulators) are for.
Hardware-wise, you can roughly break VW's Driving Simulator into three primary parts:
• A massive, three-axis hydraulic rig for providing physical motion to the person in the simulator. This part also has replicas of standard car driving controls and seating.
• An analog computer used to receive and process the inputs from the many analog sensors and potentiometers dealing with the driver's inputs and the physical, mechanical motion of the simulator.
• A digital computer system to handle the mathematical physics modeling of the simulation and to display the real-time graphics used to show the simulated road view from the car.
For the Simulator's role as the grandfather of all driving video games, the digital computer component is most significant. Based on analysis of the pictures in the article, and with input from an expert (my friend Tom Jennings), the computer used here appears to be a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-11 — a very common multi-purpose minicomputer of the era. Also pictured is a DECTapes data storage system. These tapes worked, essentially, like very slow disk drives, and stored about 184K per tape.
The graphics-generating system is a bit trickier to identify, and may be scratch-built at VW. Any sort of computer graphics — especially real-time graphics — in 1972 was very, very advanced stuff. The pioneering firm of Evans and Sutherland was one of the few companies even capable of undertaking a project like this, and while I have seen speculation that they had to be involved in the VW simulator, I have so far found no evidence of their involvement.
Most of the information I've found refers to the display device used as an "oscilloscope." This is certainly possible, since a computer can be connected to an oscilloscope and drive the X & Y yokes in the display to create vector graphics. Vector graphics are point-to-point line-based computer graphics, and do not use pixels, like the raster displays common on about everything today. Think arcade Asteroids instead of Pac-Man.
The VW Sim's displays are clearly vector graphics. I'm not 100% certain the display device was an actual, literal oscilloscope or a display device like the pleasingly automotively-named GT40 Graphic Display Terminal, a vector graphics system for the PDP-11, conveniently released in 1972. I'm almost more inclined to go with the GT40, since the picture of the display unit has a rectangular screen about the right size, when an oscilloscope would likely have had a round screen in 1972. Though, it's possible in the picture we're just seeing a TV monitor with the broadcast image, too.
The display — whether on an actual oscilloscope with extra hardware or a GT40 — was then captured via closed-circuit TV cameras and sent to the cockpit unit, where a large, circular magnifying/collimator lens in place of the windshield magnifies the receiving TV monitor.
The reason for this TV broadcast/lens setup is explained in the article:
The image is transmitted onto the monitor of the driving cabin from the oscilloscope with the help of a TV camera. This technique makes it possible for later exercises to cue in differently-generated TV images, for instance other model landscapes. The driver views the monitor through a collimator lens from the company Farrand Optical Co., Inc., which adapt the driver's eye to large distances and allow the image to appear unendingly large.
So, it looks like maybe they were planning on overlaying the computer-generated imagery over actual video, at some point?
The actual images drawn are pretty minimal, and, according to the article, consists of
The driver in the cabin of the simulator sees a synthetic street view (image 5) with street boundaries, divided middle lines, horizon, guide posts, and a symbolized tree. Those last two elements are notable, for the purpose of conveying a sense of distance and speed.
This synthetic view was chosen, because it ensures the highest level of flexibility and dynamic (dynamism?), and because a higher level of realism wasn't achievable...
There's not many 'screenshots' of what the simulator generated, but there are a few, and they look remarkably like what vectorscan-based video games looked like in the late '70s and early '80s. There's no surviving video of the system in action (at least nothing I've found yet) but I imagine it would look pretty damn close to how a driving game looked on a Vectrex:
(that's my very own Vectrex, in fact!)
There was audio as well, piped in to a speaker in the cabin. The computer was capable of generating the following sounds:
Sounds are also generated completely synthetically in the driving electronics from the components of:
motor sounds (RPM dependent)
driving sounds (speed dependent)
tire squeal (acceleration dependent)
crash sounds (situational)
Tire squeal! That's a nice, unexpected touch.
The physical/mechanical components of the system, while not as germane to the Simulator's role as the inspiration for computerized racing/driving games, was nevertheless a huge part of the system. The driver's cabin was capable of full three-axis movement, as well as a fourth motion element where the bumpiness or smoothness of roads could be simulated.
The massive-looking rig was hydraulically controlled for the main 3-axis motion, and other force-feedback motions look to be simulated via electric motors. The steering column, for example, had a motor on it to simulate the torque a steering wheel would feed back in driving situations.
The digital model of the moving simulated vehicle and all of the environmental conditions tracked (road inclination, overall speed, road curvature, and I think some limited set of wind and weather conditions) interacted directly and in real time with the analog system to perform what must have been a pretty convincing feeling of motion. You accelerate, and the weight shifts rearward (via the pitch motor on the car's long axis), you'd lean into turns, all that good stuff. I'm not sure, but I'd like to think if you crashed it'd give you a good shaking around.
Other companies of Volkswagen's size had similar simulators, and, knowing how quickly this sort of equipment would become obsolete in the early '70s, it's safe to say the costs to doing similar systems would be dropping dramatically every year.
There's so little information available about this Simulator that I'm not really sure how long it remained in use. I imagine that by, say, 1976 or so the computation technology would have advanced so much that a more sophisticated visual system could have been developed — definitely by the early 80s.
I can easily imagine that the digital components would have been replaced and the much more physically and mechanically complex hydraulic system kept, at least for a while, but so far I haven't found any evidence either way.
I really am amazed at how little anyone at VW or computing/video game history in general seems to know or care about this machine, and others of the era like it. At least in the case of the 1972 VW Driving Simulator, I think the machine's role as the direct ancestor and inspiration for first-person driving game is quite ironclad.
Let's just walk down the chain here. The VW Driving Simulator was developed and running by 1972, somehow Dr.Foerst saw it and was driven to attempt to replicate it on a more manageable scale, which gave birth to the Nürburgring series of games, a flyer for which was seen by Dave Sheppard, the Atari programmer who came up with Night Driver. Here's a quote from him about that:
I was given a piece of paper with a picture of a game cabinet that had a small portion of the screen visible. I don't recall if it was an actual flyer for the game or simply a Xerox of the front page of the flyer. I recall it being German or maybe I was just told it was a German game. I never saw the game play nor did I know what scoring was used on that game, only that there were a few little white squares showing. With that germ of an idea, out popped Night Driver.
And, of course, Night Driver spawned its own crowd of imitators, games like 280-ZZZap, which then grew to games like Pole Position, and on and on until we get to the modern era of full-3D games like the Gran Turismo or Forza series. It's a remarkably straight chain of evolution, and I feel very confident saying VW's Simulator was where it all began.
It's my hope that by writing about this remarkable and influential machine, finally giving it some real mass-market acknowledgement on the internet, someone who remembers it, or, even better, helped develop it may come forward and tell us more about it. Does any of it still exist, in some forgotten VW storage unit somewhere? Is there any video of it in action? I'd love to know.
So, VW-Fahrsimulator, wherever you are, thanks for all you did. You owe me a lot of wasted time and quarters, but we can take that up later.