How I built a “Back To the Future” motion simulator
By Franck Talbart, senior QA/software engineer, Scality
Back in the good old days before 2007, Back to the Future: The Ride was one of the highlights of the Universal Studios theme parks.
Riders would board motion-based vehicles modeled after the famed DeLorean and watch a film projected onto a dome-shaped IMAX screen. I can still remember how impressed I was, sitting in the DeLorean while watching a time travel adventure based on the famous movie franchise. The vehicle moved during the film to give rides a truly immersive experience.
From a popular ride to a cure for boredom
Fast forward 20 years. I’ve had experience designing and building a software-controlled robot, which I previously wrote about here. Bored during the COVID-19 lockdowns, I sought a more advanced challenge to get me through those long winter evenings. And then I had a “Eureka” moment – why not recreate Back to the Future: The Ride in my own basement?
My idea was two-fold:
- Build a homemade motion simulator to create the sensation of being in a real motion environment. Such a simulator would have to be synchronized with a visual display of a virtual environment (for instance, a regular TV screen or even better, a Virtual Reality headset.).
- Based on the platform, write a 3D world to reproduce the beloved (and now sadly, gone) Back to The Future ride from the Universal Studios theme parks
I also wanted the rig to be compatible with racing games, flight simulations, spacecraft, and other types of simulations.
Creating the platform (i.e., the hardware)
In a typical arcade racing game, a professional motion platform generates up to six types of movement, which are called Degrees of Freedom (DOF).
I built mine using only recycled materials and discarded electronic circuits. Despite this, it can perform three DOF’s: Roll, Pitch, and Heave.
The only parts I bought for this project were three 500-watt motors.
One last important detail: To simulate the feeling of the wind in one’s face, I decided to add a fan, the intensity of which automatically corresponds to the driver’s “speed”.
After two months of work, the platform was ready to be tried out with existing racing games.
“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”
Now I had to design the 3D world of Back To The Future: The Ride.
First, I had to reproduce a Virtual Reality (VR) environment to simulate the screen, the DeLorean and Doc Brown’s laboratory. A VR headset (Oculus Rift or HTC Vive) is necessary to “move” through this 3D world. The fan is obviously an essential part of the experience!
I found the original footage from the ride on the internet, which had been restored and remastered. It’s embedded in the virtual screen of the VR environment.
My second task was to sync the platform’s movements with the footage. To do so, I added a joystick and made it possible for my computer to capture (read) any manipulations of it.
I then connected my computer to the platform using a regular USB cable. The computer sends the information about the movement (i.e., telemetry) to the platform. Finally, the platform moves accordingly. To see a video, click here.
I hope my project will be an inspiration to other fans of Doc Brown and Marty McFly’s adventures. The source code is open-sourced and available online. For more information, feel free to check out my repository on Gitlab.