In 2006, I spent a memorable week in Japan reporting a story about how Sony made the Gran Turismo driving game for the PlayStation console. Connoisseurs of this particular form of entertainment know that GT put every other driving sim on the trailer when it debuted in 1997. The efforts of GT’s creator and head guru, Kazunori Yamauchi, to leverage new technology to make his game even more realistic have not wavered. In essence, Yamauchi and his employees at Sony’s subsidiary, Polyphony Digital, are trying to make a game so real that it looks like high-def TV in which you, sitting at home on your sofa with your tube of Pringles and your Diet Dr Pepper, are the driver.
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At the time I was in Tokyo, Yamauchi and his team were working frantically in an anonymous high-rise office block to ready the fifth generation of the game, or GT5. It had big shoes to fill. GT3 had been a smash seller (it still has the GT sales record, at 15 million copies sold), and the young programmers were slaving nonstop except for occasional sleep breaks on small cots they had constructed under their desks. Gran Turismo 4 debuted in 2004 with more than 700 cars available to drive, but sales, although brisk, never bested those of GT3. Since then, Polyphony has striven to add ever more cars to the game. In 2013, GT6 arrived with a stable that eventually grew to more than 1200 cars, with everything from Jay Leno’s Tankrod to the Apollo lunar rover.
So I was delighted to hear recently from my old guide and translator on that 2006 trip, Taku Imasaki, who still works for Sony. He asked me if I would lend my 1970 Lamborghini Espada to his team for digital scanning into the game. Although I was happy to help, I cautioned him that my car is hardly Concours-quality. It bears 50 years of patina that includes a slight twist to the front bumper where it was once rolled into by a driverless Ferrari that had slipped its parking brake.
I offered to find him a perfect Espada, but he replied, “I prefer to work with a friend.”
One day a few months ago at a studio in nearby Long Beach, I watched a team of young Japanese descend on my old Espada. Two of them slipped off their shoes and spent over an hour placing hundreds of reflective-dot stickers over the interior; another man opened cases of equipment that produced a hefty Leica-brand optical scanner on a tripod as well as a hand-held device that looked like a Star Trek phaser.
Over the next six hours, he meticulously passed it back and forth over the entire body of the car while a three-dimensional image slowly formed on the attendant computer screens. When I asked how it worked, Taku fired off a few questions in Japanese, then translated with the proviso that not everything could be revealed, for competitive reasons.
What I got is that it basically works like differential GPS, in that the car and the tripod scanner remain fixed points while the hand-held scanner moves, gliding over the surface to create a perfect digital model from calculated points in space. For the interior, they use a less precise scanning method that nonetheless still produces a realistic 3D image, thanks to the dots.
Morning turned to afternoon, a catered lunch of various Indian curries came and went, and then, as the sun dipped lower, the car was pushed outside where six or seven people gathered around it with standard digital cameras and photographed every single inch, including running a little homemade remote-control camera tank underneath to shoot the bottom.
Taku told me a lot has changed since 2006. The U.S. game-console market has shrunk, largely due to the rise of smartphone games, and the American driving-sim market has bled users away to more “gamey games” like Grand Theft Auto. The U.S. was once GT’s biggest market, but Europe is now numero uno. There, players are more apt to like the hard-core racing realism that Yamauchi is striving for. “Kazunori does what he wants to do,” said Taku. “He’ll never have cars running over nuns or cops chasing you.”
Meanwhile, if you’re a GT fan and you decide to drive the Lamborghini Espada, look for the little twist in the front bumper and you’ll know it’s mine.