Editorial Feature

Augmented Reality Displays in Automobiles

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We all have a vision of what augmented reality technology should be like; it should be a Bond gadget. An invisible eye-piece, like a contact lens, that discreetly updates you and gives you important information as you’re going from place to place.

However the reality has proved more difficult, as Google Glass can attest after the social backlash and concerns over the actual utility of the product.

There are some contexts in which augmented reality makes sense, and some in which you just wonder why the person doesn’t look at their ubiquitous smartphone instead.

The second wave of augmented reality technology is arising in these specific contexts – where it actually provides added value, beyond a novelty, which makes the cost worthwhile. Manufacturing is one example where a handsfree screen that annotates the world around you has real use cases. Another clear use case for AR technology is when you’re driving.

Some analysts suggest that the market for AR technology in automobiles will balloon to $8bn by 2025. It’s easy to see why; with augmented reality heads-up display, you can project information directly onto the windscreen, within the driver’s field of view. It’s no longer necessary to take your eyes off the road to look at a dashboard or satellite navigation system.

Instead, you can imagine all of the vital diagnostics for the car – alongside any emergency warnings – always within the field of vision. It’s considered a safety feature; you can set up multiple displays within the driver’s field of view without obscuring the surroundings. Indeed – given that a car is far larger than a pair of Google Glasses, or a smartphone – it should be easy to include the high-performance hardware required for an effective visual-display and real-time processing of information. Autonomous vehicles will already contain high-performance computers, so the AR display becomes a software module for the existing GPU.

As cars become increasingly connected, the utility of this technology for consumers will only increase. You could expand the offering to include satellite navigation, with real-time information about traffic and estimated journey times relayed to the driver as they choose a route. Google’s “Lens” technology hopes to provide drivers with a way to access information with visual searches in real time; if you look at a restaurant, it could be annotated with prices, reviews, and a menu in an augmented reality display.

Someday this could be true for a car windscreen relaying information about your surroundings in real time, annotating venues with opening and closing times as you pass them. Projecting a warning over roads that are closed, or lead to heavy traffic; annotating traffic signals or lanes with displays that indicate the correct direction or improve visibility at night; these are just some of the applications that will help drivers to make better decisions.

AR doesn’t just increase automobile functionality; it can also be used as a promotional tool. Recently, as part of marketing campaigns, Jaguar’s Range Rover and Volkswagen have both released “VR/AR Test Drives” which allow you to experience a simulated test-drive without having to be present in the showroom. As automotive technology continues to advance, this kind of enhancement is only likely to become more valuable to the industry.

With AR displays, it becomes possible to talk to other drivers in the local area. Startup “Waze” wants to create a new social network, where drivers provide each other with real-time traffic information and communicate with each other on the road. Providing they can avoid road-rage, this might make driving a more social experience for those that want to interact with their fellow motorists.

Take self-driving or semi-autonomous vehicles. It will be crucial that the ‘driver’ has an easy-to-access interface with the car when in autonomous mode, displaying all of the important indicators – speed, fuel, and other key performance information – in the driver’s eyeline. The vehicle occupants will want live information about the route and the ability to re-route the car quickly if necessary. If autonomous vehicles become mainstream, in-vehicle windshield displays might be used for entertainment or to allow the vehicle occupants to use an on-board computer.

In this case, safety may demand that this takes the form of an AR display allowing the driver to simultaneously see the road ahead.

One of the barriers for autonomous vehicles becoming mainstream is likely to be consumer fear and mistrust of the technology. Even when, statistically speaking, autonomous vehicles are safer – it will still be difficult for drivers to relinquish control. Semi-autonomous vehicles with in-built AR displays may prove a stepping stone along the way towards this technology becoming more mainstream. It seems like augmented reality is a technology built for the road: expect to see it in the years ahead.
 

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