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L.A. Auto Show: In-booth video games growing in popularity with car builders

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The scene is reminiscent of teenage boys standing around an arcade machine watching a friend play Donkey Kong or Street Fighter.

There are long lines and laughter and cheers rumble from those huddled around the gaming screens.

But here at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the boys are grown men, many wearing suits, and this isn't Donkey Kong. Photo-2

It's a driving simulator video game at the Lexus booth. Or the Ford booth. Or the Hyundai booth. Or the VW booth.

Carlos Curling, a 21-year-old student at the Academy of Art University, waited in line with his industrial and automotive design professors Antonio Borja and Hideki Masuda for a go at the Lexus IS F driving simulator.

Each took a chair in the three-player setup, complete with leather racing seats matching those available in the IS F and paddle shifters on the steering wheel of the $75,000 gaming system.

Curling took first place, leaving his teachers behind in the digital dust.

"He won, but that's probably because he spends more time playing video games than doing his homework," Borja said of Curling's win. "And me spinning out in the grass probably didn't help either."

The Lexus IS F video game, which was custom built for the luxury division of Toyota, has been on the auto-show circuit for three years, said Suzie Latham, a Lexus product specialist.

"When we first brought this video game out, there wasn't anything like it at the auto shows," Latham said. "But we made quite a stir and there were always long lines. Video games are taken a little more seriously now."

Ford has a driving simulator that re-creates a short romp in an SVT Raptor F-150 -- it's a high-performance three-quarter-ton truck with 35-inch tires and off-road racing suspension.

The SVT Raptor video game was custom-built for Ford last year by Force Dynamics, based in Trumansburg, N.Y., said Gino Guarniere, a trade-show manager for Mannetron, a Battle Creek, Mich., robotics company that in part performs the upkeep on the Ford driving simulators.

Photo Ford also has two other driving simulators, each valued at about $50,000, circulating at auto shows in Europe and Asia, Guarniere said.

"The driving simulators always pull crowds in and I think manufacturers realize video games aren't just played by kids anymore," he said.

Don Watkins, a 58-year-old contractor who installed much of the carpet for the L.A. Auto Show, said he was impressed by the Ford video game which used hydraulics to shake the chair he was sitting in as he directed the game's steering wheel over rocks and bumps in the game.

"It was a lot of fun and I'd do it again," Watkins said. "But I was disappointed that I rolled the truck and the game didn't show a cracked windshield or something. They should have fans to blow wind in your face too."

The Volkswagen booth had a display where people can pick up an iPod Touch and play Real Racing GTI, a free download game also available for iPhones. VW released Real Racing GTI in October.

"You can come to the Auto Show and you can learn just about everything possible about each car and you sit in them and you can look at them, but the one thing you can't do here with these cars is drive them," said Sean Lenihan, who was manning a $50,000 gaming setup at the Hyundai booth he rented to the automaker through his company, Xtension Marketing.

"This is about as close as you can get. It isn't real driving, but it gets you behind a steering wheel and it gets you thinking about driving the car."

At the Hyundai booth, people can play Forza Motorsport 3 on an Xbox 360 and race a tricked-out Hyundai Genesis Coupe, which is available as a free download for gamers at home on the Xbox Live Marketplace.

But Hyundai's dip into in-booth gaming will be disassembled by Lenihan tonight -- it was only set up for Wednesday's and today's press days.

Lexus, Ford and VW will be keeping their gaming stations open throughout the show, which opens to the public Friday and closes Dec. 13.

"The key with bringing video games into the auto show booths is keeping people in your booth longer," Lenihan said. "If you're playing the game or watching someone else play over at the Hyundai booth or the Lexus booth, then you're not at the Mazda booth or the Dodge booth."

-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Photos, from top: People line up and watch as show visitors play the Lexus IS F driving simulator at the Los Angeles Auto Show; an over-the-shoulder view of the Lexus IS F simulator; and the Ford SVT Raptor F-150 driving simulator in action. Credit: Nathan Olivarez-Giles/Los Angeles Times.

 
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