America’s Cup, a sport once reserved for blue bloods and billionaires, is finally within reach of the rest of us.

Just head to San Francisco’s Pier 23 — home base for this month’s America’s Cup finals — where you can step up and grab the enormous, manhole-sized steering wheel and try it out for yourself.

The race is virtual, of course. The building-sized AC-72 catamarans used in this year’s race are too expensive ($8 million-plus) — and too quick (more than 40 knots) — to trust to amateurs.

But Virtual Eye founder Ian Taylor — and a team equipped with NVIDIA technology — are at the core of efforts to reinvent sports for a digital age.

Taylor’s team already has more than two decades worth of experience turning real-time data into interactive feeds that can be watched on the web, or on mobile devices. More than 100,000 users have downloaded an app that will let them follow the progress of the America’s Cup.

With his latest efforts, he’s making those experiences more tangible. The same data that allows Virtual Eye to simulate the wind and water of a race in a hyper-realistic digital copy of the San Francisco Bay powers a simulator that lets users take part in a virtual race themselves.

In between watching races, spectators at San Francisco’s Pier 23 can grab one of two life-sized wheels attached to force-feedback systems and race against one another. Information about each boat is shown to each captain on a 22-inch touchscreen. Up top, the action is displayed on an enormous 72-inch display so the crowd can watch along.

Hands on: if you're watching the America's Cup in San Francisco, you can get a little hands-on time with a virtual boat.
If you’re watching the America’s Cup in San Francisco, you can get a little hands-on time with a virtual boat.

The displays turn the vast amount of real-time data used by Virtual Eye to stream each race into an interactive game, sponsored by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, with participants in the race getting a chance to win a trip to either New Zealand or the United Arab Emirates.

Not bad, and maybe the only way to top the virtual trip that players have just taken.

Photos: John Ison