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Video-game wrecks get real

About the author

Jack is the presenter of Science in Action on the BBC World Service. He trained as a mechanical engineer (with automotive and aeronautic design) before becoming a journalist. He has worked at the BBC for over a decade and has reported from areas as diverse as war zones and technology shows

Wiping out is a fundamental part of the fun in a driving-based video game. Crashless gaming is an indication that the player is not pushing hard enough. And when the crash comes, gamers want the experience to be as realistic as possible.

New work by designers and engineers means crashes are getting more spectacular – and frighteningly accurate – than ever.

Modelling a smash-up is a complicated physics problem for a game designer, and arguably the last frontier for driving-simulator game development. Plastics, metals, glass and other materials all deform and fracture at different rates and in different places. Every crash is unique in its destruction, and the anatomy of a crash is boggling in its complexity and speed. 

A modern car may have a plastic bumper, aluminium hood and a rigid steel safety cell, which all crease or fold, absorbing some of the crash energy. Then there is rebound from all these systems, as parts of them bounce back. The whole process is over in about 70 milliseconds (0.07 sec) – faster than the proverbial blink of an eye (0.1 sec).

Carmakers use super-computers to run crash simulators to recreate these explosive events, and to test new vehicle designs without actually destroying anything. The idea dates back to software company ESI, which in 1978 presented a simulation at a conference of a fighter plane crashing into a nuclear power plant.

From these doomsday origins, it was clear that the applications for damage modelling could be much wider. However it took until 1986 for the modelling of a crash involving a “virtual” Volkswagen Polo to be usefully created, and even then the simulation had to churn on the computer overnight, so only one crash per day was possible.

This all serves to make the work of startups such as BeamNG appear even more stunning. Consisting of just four people, two artists and two programmers scattered across Greece, the US, Australia and Germany (they conduct most of their meetings over Skype), the company has created a game, BeamNG.drive, that features incredibly realistic crashes, with possible real-world applications.

Watching the company’s sample video above is at once wildly entertaining and chilling. At one point, a car collides with a boulder. Time slows down in the impact’s immediate aftermath, and it is possible to see the individual components subjected to the force of the impact. A hubcap flies off, the front bumper detaches on one side, the vehicle rolls, metal crumples and suspension components appear to deform.

BeamNG.drive. (BeamNG)

The reason the crash is so realistic is because of the ground-up approach the company has taken to designing the simulations. “Actually it’s not about the crashes. The crash is a nice sight, but it’s about the behaviour of the vehicle itself,” says Thomas Fischer, head of research and development at BeamNG.

Instead of a game designer changing values arbitrarily to create a desired vehicle behaviour, BeamNG applies basic engineering principles gleaned through its research into materials science. The results reflect a deep understanding of how materials move; that they also look amazing onscreen is the byproduct.

At its most basic, the simulation engine is just a series of points, and information on the connection between those points.

“Whatever you can build out of those points and connections, it’s possible to simulate,” Fischer says. “What we’re doing is we’re giving the guy that creates the vehicle the ability to create a physics skeleton.”

The company has created a helicopter and a submarine, for example. Some points will mark wheels and tires, with the link between them defined as somewhat bouncy. Other points, meanwhile, will define the corners of the steel car body, with rigid links.

Using those basic principles, the physics of the vehicle and its driving – and crashing – characteristics become predictable.

What is learnt from realistic simulations can also feed back into the real world. Crash investigators, almost in reverse, could use the software. A realistic physical model of a car could help determine what might have happened in an accident through reconstruction.

As the company says, “BeamNG.drive is about doing anything you want with a car or truck.” It proposes that you go off-roading in a family sedan, or build your own racing machine to thrash and smash to your heart’s content.

BeamNG has also received interest from the film industry to model vehicle stunts, so that they can be prototyped and tested exhaustively – but cheaply – before a stunt driver smashes up a car on set.

The rest of us would be advised to keep our crashes onscreen.

BeamNG.drive. (BeamNG)

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