Smart RC cars you can race like Scalextric with videogame-like interaction? Gis a go!
Scalextric. Radio-controlled cars. Videogames. How many a life-long fixation with cars has been forged with childhood obsession with one or all of these? Guilty as charged in the PH office! And seemingly so for the creators of a new 'slotless racing' system called RealFX aiming to combine the best of all three.
RealFX man Graeme talks us through his creation
At heart RealFX uses small radio-controlled cars running around a plastic track. But it's far, far smarter than that with optical sensors able to keep them within the track confines without any control from the driver whatsoever. The faster you go the more throttle and steering input is required and if you overcook it you will leave the track. Unlike Scalextric you don't have to send your little brother to the other side of the room to recover it though - you can simply drive it back onto the circuit and carry on racing.
The 'smart' element means Billy No Mates types can race against a self-driving rival (akin to the 'ghost' cars in videogames), the level of difficulty can be adjusted from near autonomous to total control and RealFX can even throw in virtual 'traps' like oil spills, tyre wear and other challenges. And because there are no slots you can overtake on either side, powerslide around your rivals and genuinely feel like you have real control over your car.
"Sorry love, I've been held up at the office..."
Chucking out time at PH Towers or not, when RealFX founder Graeme Taylor offered to drop by and let us set up a track on the office floor there were more than a few calls to home.
Track set-up is quicker than the fiddly clips of Scalextric, the sheets of plastic simply linking together to create a circuit that suits your space and driving skills. Ours had a crossover bridge included, Graeme says the cars will in theory be capable of doing a loop the loop and they're working on the mechanics of making this happen. Everything is battery operated, Taylor telling us he set a car running in autonomous mode with a fresh set and it bimbled round on its own for a number of hours.
Strong drift skills from PH man Nikolai
The starter set comes with a pair of cars but you'll be able to add more to the grid as required; at the moment they're a generic NASCAR style vehicle but RealFX is in negotiation with car manufacturers to get properly licenced versions of 'real' cars and the clip-on bodyshells and wheels mean you'll be able to run a fleet of cars off the same chassis much as you'd have a virtual garage in Gran Turismo.
The number of features packed into the cars and control system is hugely impressive, the fact the cars and track 'talk' to each other and the 'smart' control aspect bringing videogame style difficulty control to radio-controlled cars. So a five-year-old can race a car with all the assists on against dad with a more challenging car that needs full control to stay on the track, creating a level playing field for participants of all abilities. Lap times are recorded and reported via the handset, races of any length can be created and features like fuel consumption, tyre wear and damage can be incorporated requiring pit stops and other tactical elements.
'Real' licenced cars promised soon
Is it any good though? It'll certainly test your hand-eye coordination and those with experience of radio-controlled cars will be at an advantage. Learning the necessary smoothness to really balance the control inputs to the action on the track will take a bit of time too, at least given by our jerky inputs and frequency with which cars were departing the track and disappearing under nearby desks. If that happens you simply switch to RC mode, drive back onto the track and then switch the sensors back on to continue.
There's clearly a whole lot of time-wasting potential and, as promised, it's a lot more interactive and 'real' than a videogame while retaining welcome irritation factors to annoy grown-ups, be that the engine noise and commentary from the handsets, excitable shouting of competitors or traditional potential for chipped skirting boards from flying cars. And at £99.99 for the starter set it looks like pretty good value for money too.