A number of years ago when Thunder Press was still in Scotts Valley, California, I rented an ocean-view flat on Beach Hill in Santa Cruz, six miles from the office and a block away from the famous Beach Boardwalk amusement park. And it was there that among the other outdoor thrill rides was an Isle of Man motorcycle race simulator. It was a big box, essentially, a windowless pod that looked like an abbreviated shipping container that sat on an elaborate understructure of hydraulic rams and huge coil springs. Once inside, you were seated in a theatre of sorts with an immense screen in front of you, and when the program started you found yourself hurtling from a POV perspective along the legendary road course of the Manx TT, tilting and bouncing and getting both a full scenic and kinetic experience of the course. That’s what we call “playing motorcycle.”
In the indoor arcade adjacent to the midway were Sega Cool Riders machines that offered not only a menu of bikes and destinations, but also an actual motorcycle-derived platform with functioning throttle, gearbox, and toggling mount for leaning into the turns. I tried it a time or two—just enough to learn that I stunk at it and died repeatedly in a matter of minutes. High sides, low sides, violent crashes—you name it—that suggested I had no business being on a bike, at least not a virtual one. That, too, was a means of “playing motorcycle,” albeit a technically sophisticated one for the era.
Various means of playing motorcycle have been around as long as motorcycles—and bicycles and baseball cards and arcade machines—but my first recollection of semi-authentic and semi-absurd motorcycle playing occurred on a Triumph chopper my buddy Jim was building in his apartment in Lansing during a Michigan winter over 40 years ago. In a moment of whimsy inspired by a 12-pack of Stroh’s, we dragged a big fan into the room, switched it on, dropped the needle on the Easy Rider movie soundtrack, and Jim mounted up on the cobra seat of his skeletal project and daydreamed while a blizzard raged outside the window. You can imagine the confused look of bemusement on his girlfriend’s face when she walked in, paused, and muttered something about “professional help.” But that style of winter-blues motorcycle playing was more widespread in those cold climes (and apartment living rooms) than most might imagine and fewer will admit to.
We’ve come a long way from that. It was Harley-Davidson that made the first quantum leap beyond the “playing motorcycle” norm with their Jump Start program that put literally thousands of neophytes on actual functioning machines, giving them the opportunity to start, rev, and shift an honest-to-gosh hog on a stationary platform. It was not a training exercise, nor was it intended to be. It was an inspired means of demystifying the experience. It was an inspired novelty that doubtless paid dividends, especially among aspiring women riders.
And now with the introduction of Victory Motorcycles’ Virtual Ride Experience being staged at the Chicago International Motorcycle Show as I write this, the interface between arcade gaming technology and real motorcycling has tightened considerably. It’s the most elaborate stab at playing motorcycle to date. It blurs the lines between high-tech gaming and physical motorcycling on a real bike—a Gunner, in this instance—and offers what’s called an “immersive” 3-dimensional alternate reality with a bit of interactivity between the ride and test rider. (Sort of, like the bike’s real enough, but everything else is essentially and mind-blowingly imaginary.) Developed by a company called “space 150,” it employs the Oculus Rift gamer array of headpiece, headphones, and it’s all in your head—or actually, your headset. It also incorporates a “tactile transducer” that translates the recorded engine rumble of the imaginary ride into physical vibrations (which can’t help but remind you of the Vibe Rider diddle pillion insert that’s been around for a number of years—or even of the Bally Harley-Davidson pinball machine that rumbled and shook as part of the game).
I’m not a gamer. I have no console; I have no joysticks—aside from the one I was born with. I have aging televisions that are derisively referred to as “fatbacks” by even my loved ones, and mostly I just don’t have the time. So it was jaw-dropping as I researched this piece to see how futuristic the genre has become. In the case of the Virtual Ride, the Victory Gunner serves as the seat—one that leans to simulate actual motorcycling, though unlike the old Sega games your handling inputs don’t affect the navigation of the virtual bike. Only the throttle does that, allowing you to dial it on and speed through the realistic course that encompasses the Badlands, where going fast is actually a possibility, to the Needles Highway where it truly isn’t. That’s the most congested, slowest, and least forgiving road in the Black Hills.
Nonetheless, the possibilities of the technology in this usage are in their infancy. So as a practical matter, the whole notion could become the only authentic vestige of motorcycling as we know it as the highways fill with driverless cars and the weather events become ever more violent and unpredictable. I hope I don’t live to see it, and probably won’t, the way I’m going, but there are lessons to be learned even here from the infancy of playing motorcycle. That big fan in the room, for one thing, and the addition of “smell-o-vision” to give you the sensory input of hay fields, wildflowers in bloom, the forests of Black Hills spruce and the euphoric ozone of rushing roadside brooks would enhance the fakery. And for optimal authenticity, you can always introduce a swarm of live bees to the virtual reality space, and maybe get somebody to spray you with a garden hose at unexpected intervals. Consider the patent applied for.
It’s all right here in the diaries.