There was a lot of fun and funky design coming out of last week’s Tokyo motor show: rolling lounges, futuristic fuel systems, and a metric Watson of autonomous technology. What else was there, but didn’t get much attention, was AR — augmented reality. This fighter-jet-style windshield display can allow drivers to see in the dark, point out hazards and turn lanes, and generally turn humans into cyborgian motoring machines.
It was only two years ago (at the last Tokyo show) that Nissan was set to make a splash with its “3E” augmented reality headset, which was a space pirate-like digital monocle with a head-up display for telemetry data, Internet connectivity, and communication. The splash was more of a thud, probably because the device’s nearest relative was Google Glass, and various “Glassholes” had recently been ticketed by police for distracted driving.
The idea is certainly sound, and far from new. As far back as 1988, General Motors offered a head-up display on the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that included a glowing green speed readout and turn-indicator arrows. Subsequent systems added colour and more vehicle data — tachometer readouts, infotainment settings and, in the 2000 Cadillac DeVille, a highly distracting thermal-imaging night-vision display. But there is a big difference between systems that flash simple on-board data in the line of sight and systems that use situational awareness to deliver location-relevant information in real-time.
Smartphone users have access to dozens of apps with augmented-reality capability — software like Wikitude World Browser and Google’s clever Ingress sci-fi game. These apps use location awareness and a data connection to overlay some sort of information, be it restaurant listings or the location of exotic matter orbs, on a live image from your phone’s camera. In your car, the technology will work the same way, although it will deliver its information — anything from route guidance to road-hazard alerts — on a much larger screen: the windshield.
In 2014, Jaguar engineers created the 360 Virtual Urban Windscreen concept, which projected a “ghost car” on the windshield glass, allowing drivers mimic lane changes and turns instead of listening to GPS directions. And Mini, in cooperation with designer Keiichi Matsuda, explored digital overlays in the form of contact lenses directing information directly onto driver’s retinas; until that technology matures, Mini’s showing off some steampunky AR goggles. And Mitsubishi’s recent Emirai concept car keeps track of head movements, as well as facial expressions and heart rate, to decide what extra information to show on which part of the car — such as “You look a little sleepy; there’s a rest stop six miles ahead.” With increased computing power and sensor technology, AR might finally become useful.
One interesting player in that is, predictably, Google.
It seems that Google has rented a few electronic billboards around London, and the company is feeding programmatic advertising into them, serving up the most relevant ads according to things like time of day, weather, special events, and even (in aggregate) who is driving by. That’s just the sort of information that a Google-connected car could use to avoid certain exits, or find the cheapest gas, or begin heating the headlamps and wipers for the ice storm ahead. In this near-future, augmented reality isn’t just you plus car, but you plus car plus the sum of all human knowledge (in real time). That could make for some very intelligent driving.
At least until you are in your Google Self-Driving Car, at which point you should expect your windscreen to display lots and lots of targeted ads.
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