Turning up at a freezing airport at 6am, our faces virtually stuck in one expression from the cold, we were greeted by a quite incredible sight. As part of its Xperia Studio series, Sony had crafted a pair of smartphone-controlled MG cars and we were going to race them. The idea was we take on an application developer in a life-size version of his app: Reckless Racing 2.
The airfield we were using had been a US base in the Cold War. Boasting the largest private runway in Europe, RAF Bentwaters also acted as a backup landing strip for the Space Shuttle should it not make the trip back to Cape Canaveral. Strewn with all sorts of military artefacts, including a pile of disused Jaguar aircraft, this was already good enough for us.
That was rapidly topped by the actual filming location. Inside something called the hush house - a building used for testing jet engines - sat our two remote-controlled cars. Two giant electronic hangar doors opened and the MGs sat there, all lit up for the shoot. Sure they aren’t the most glamorous of convertables but the location added plenty of magic. The huge tunnel used for venting away jet engine blasts was a particular favourite as was the control room in which we immediately pressed every button.
The developer from Pixelbite was slightly taken aback by it all. Sony had kitted out the MGs to look as close as possible to the in-app cars - same stripes and even a custom numberplate with the dev’s studio's name.
Any shoot like this, with of a crew of around 20, takes ballet of management to get all the required filming done. Given the short amount of light at our disposal, we got straight on with the shooting. The whole video was put together on Canon DSLRs, complete with a sea of viewfinders, pull-focus rigs and even a remote-control helicopter.
First up, we had the inner workings of the cars explained to us by their creator James. Using pressurised gas and hydraulics, the steering wheel, gears, accelerator and brake could all be controlled remotely. James was a Q character and had in his past put together some creations that even Bond would be jealous of. Remote control cars, planes and exploding trucks. “I could even blow up these MGs if you wanted,” he volunteered. Sony wasn't so keen.
The camera crew followed us about while James did his thing and Martin, the app’s developer, and Pocket-lint had a bit of a spiel. He was still stunned at the whole thing which meant getting any chatter out of him proved tricky. The inside of the car alone, with its huge collection of wires, pumps and cogs, kept us pretty quiet too. All we wanted to do was drive it.
A brief interview and a baked potato later and it was time to go out to the track. Laid out for us was a life-size version of a course from the Reckless Racing app. Before we even thought about tackling it, we needed a bit of training in car control. It turned out that driving these life-size remote-control cars was incredibly difficult.
Why? Well because they carried a massive amount of inertia compared to the usual miniatures you drive as a kid. The MGs were more than capable of hitting 60 or 70 mph and, unlike a tiny remote car, needed a good few hundred feet to come to a stop. It was pretty dangerous. We could have quite easily sent an MG smashing into the cherry picker from which were controlling them.
The Xperia S and Xperia Play we were using to control the cars each had custom apps written for them that worked on a sort of 4-axis system. Up was forward, down was brake, left was left and right was right. Two boxes controlled gear shifting and finally there was an enabling button to make the whole system work. Taking both fingers off would slam the brakes on and centre the wheel. A sort of panic state if you did things wrong, which we did. Often.
We started out by idling the car and letting it just tick forwards very slowly, driving it around cones. It got boring very quickly so we decided to try a bit of off-road, slammed the MG into full throttle and charged off into the distance. We then gave it full brakes and spun the car around in a spectacular move. Worried faces immediately appeared on all of the crew who were poised a little too close by with cameras.
Training over, it was on to the main event. We cannot begin to describe how cold it was. Sitting in the middle of an open airfield and raised up on a cherry picker, the rest of the crew donned balaclavas to keep their faces warm.
These, we obviously couldn’t wear while shooting so it was bye-bye nose and fingers and it began to create problems when it came to controlling the MGs later. Numb fingers weren't much use.
The track consisted of a tight hairpin section followed by a wide corner and a long straight. Martin was up first and put in quite an impressive lap time. We were then told to make things exciting, or as we translated it, crash. Martin managed a spectacular lap in which he two-wheeled the MG off a pile of dirt and then overshot the finish line, crashing it into a trailer. This put his car out of action for quite some time.
Pocket-lint, being brilliant a brilliant driver (we've failed our driving test six times), immediately beat Martin’s lap time. The order was then given to "go crazy". Big mistake. We threw the car into full throttle, wheel spins round the hairpin, overshot and then practically broke the whole drive train by ramming it into a steel drum and driving over it.
A few laps of this madness and the car had had enough. The gearbox blew up and it caught fire. Shouts of “kill” were sent out across loudhailers and the crew ran over to check we hadn’t totally wrecked the car. We had.
Martin’s red MG managed to survive and he put in a few quick laps. Most were a lot better than our winning effort - the difference was that they weren’t being timed. In the end, both cars were pretty much trashed after a rather tasty selection of doughnuts and a final shot of the vehicle driving off into the horizon.
The timing of the whole thing was near immaculate with shooting finishing the second the sun went down. We were whisked off into cars and catapulted back to London. A long day but one we won't forget. Not often do apps hit real life. This was an augmented reality app, without the augmented part.
What do you think to our escapades? Let us know in the comments below ...