features list for Gran Turismo 5 was leaked on Polyphony Digital's website (only to disappear right after) most people let themselves be sidetracked by the big numbers like "1000 cars" and so forth. But, as I briefly pointed out in my previous articles, that might not be GT5's juiciest feature.
Looks like today quite a few sites are start on picking up on that little tidbit of information that reveals that the player will be able to have the Playstation Eye camera track the movement of his head to fully control the viewpoint inside the cockpit.
While head tracking technology isn't new to videogaming, especially thanks to a device named TrackIR, that's pretty popular between dedicated flight simmers (I have an older model that I used to use with the PC version of IL-2 Sturmovik, and it's usefulness is really off the charts), this is the first time that such a feature is natively included in a console racing game.
I didn't use the term "revolution" in the title randomly. One of the biggest problems in racing games (and in flight simulators) is situational awareness. The fact that the player has only a flat screen in front of him forces him to watch straight ahead, unless he uses a slow controller command, that will often force him to loose track of what's happening in front of him. It's clunky and cumbersome and will never get near to the actual field of view that can be achieved by driving a real car.
The problem gets even more critical while racing online, as human players are much more unpredictable than AI drivers, and can try sudden maneuvers that, if not noticed, can easily cause crashes.
Just think at what happens when you drive for real. When you overtake another car you'll follow it on the side of your car or in the mirrors with your eyes, to make sure you keep your distance, but you'll still be able to keep track of what's in front of you with quick movements of your head or simply because even if you look directly at the mirrors the front of your car is still in your field of vision. In a racing game most players just look straight ahead, not to loose their frontal situational awareness, and they pray to whatever god they worship that the player they are overtaking is keeping his distance and is not just going to ram on their side.
That's the reason why you won't see many people overtaking during a turn online. Doing so without the necessary awareness of what happens on the sides of your car is just too risky, and looking to the side with the controller while you're in the middle of a turn makes holding your racing line basically impossible.
With head tracking you can do exactly what you do in real life. You can instinctively turn your head towards the corner of the screen, and your viewpoint will shift to the side or to the mirrors, then immediately turn it back to the center to look back ahead, quickly and safely, without loosing track of what happens in front of you.
It's simply an immense boost in situational awareness, that (if it works well, of course) will change racing online to a more fun and immersive experience, removing a sizable part of those limits that come by sitting in front of a monitor.
Of course, we haven't seen this feature in action yet, and we can only hope that it works as well as the TrackIR does (you can see it explained in a video here, or give a look to an Il-2 dogfight while using it below just to understand how it works). I can most definitely tell you that when I started to use that in flight simulator it revolutionized my dogfighting experience. No more cumbersome thumb-control of the point of view. I could simply and instinctively follow the enemy plane with my eyes and let my eye-hand coordination do the rest as naturally as if I was in a real plane.
If GT5's head tracking can achieve the same effect, then "revolution" might definitely not be an exaggerated definition for it. While many will still be sidetracked by the number of the cars, I'm sure true online racers will recognize the potential of being able to look around freely, and rejoice.