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A video game designer blurs the line between the real and the virtual

​Kazunori Yamauchi’s Gran Turismo is more than a game. It’s used to train race car drivers and its designers are contributing to the development of self-driving cars.

Illustration of Gran Turismo gameplay

The aerodynamic parts of Nissan’s model Z were designed by the Gran Turismo team. | Illustration by Stefani Billings

Lovers of video games have long embraced Gran Turismo, one of the most popular racing simulators in the world.

The game, which runs on Sony’s PlayStation console, is so realistic that it has been used to train real race car drivers. Currently, Gran Turismo’s parent company, Polyphony Digital, and CEO Kazunori Yamauchi are developing technologies that could eventually contribute to improving self-driving cars. Yamauchi spoke about the ways he continues to push the divide between reality and virtual reality in the world of cars at a recent Open Garage Talk, an event sponsored by the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS).

Under Yamauchi’s leadership, Polyphony Digital has developed a close relationship with the auto industry. Its engineers contribute ideas for simulation and other technologies to car makers, and the industry reciprocates by designing virtual cars to include in the console game’s digital garage. (You can see photos and videos of 27 of those cars here.) The aerodynamic parts of Nissan’s slick model Z, for example, were designed by the Gran Turismo team, as well as the information system in the Nissan GT-R. Nvidia, a maker of high-end graphics cards, borrowed Gran Turismo’s game engine to improve simulations of self-driving cars. And recently, Polyphony’s engineers have been experimenting with adding artificial intelligence technologies to racing simulations to better understand the driving experience.

Gran Turismo is just a game. But the synergy between the auto industry and the creators of Gran Turismo is blurring the line between the real world of autos and motor sports and the virtual world of games as engineers and software developers inspire each other to create new features and applications. And it’s no accident that the two cultures overlap. “People who played the game 20 years ago are now adults with important roles in the [auto] industry as engineers and designers,” says Yamauchi. “Working with Gran Turismo inspires them to create new sports cars.”