Einstein is quoted as stating, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Is it possible that the man who proposed general relativity could have imagined the world we live in today? One where, 60 years after his death, humanity’s entire existence is supported by the passing of binary code through the ether? Perhaps. Either way, technology enables us to frame our day-to-day lives around a multitude of customized realities. Most of these, like television and video games, supplant what’s “real,” building something new from scratch. It could be argued that “virtual reality” represents the ultimate expression of this concept. However, there’s something else on the rise, and rather than replacing reality, it seeks to alter it. It’s called augmented reality, and it’s coming to a car near you.
Augmented reality, or “AR,” takes cues from a given real-time environment and puts a unique perspective on it. By combining digitally created forms with what already physically exists, AR-equipped devices overlay some form of computer-generated enhancement onto the world around us, be it video, still image, sound, or data, thus enriching the user’s own perception. Think of it as ”reality plus.”
AR has already found its way into a variety of industries. There are apps out there that can identify constellations in the sky, points of interest on a street, or merchandise in a store simply by pointing your smartphone at them. The military also uses AR extensively, replacing traditional heads-up displays for fighter pilots and creating simulated training exercises for soldiers.
Carmakers are chomping at the bit to apply this technology to consumer vehicles, with companies like Jaguar Land Rover providing numerous concepts outlining its vision for future applications. The aftermarket is equally as eager. Pioneer has plans to develop its own products.
It would appear as though the stage is set for AR to catalyze substantial advances in the way we use cars to interact with the world. But how does it all work, and more importantly, what should you expect when you find yourself sitting in an AR-equipped vehicle?
Click past the jump to read more about Augmented Reality.
How It Works
AR begins with the sensors. These vary depending on the application, but can include cameras, radar, lasers, and GPS. Computer software sorts the information from these instruments into some kind of cohesive vision of the surrounding environment.
Next, the software adds an augmentation, normally a media overlay of some kind, which is adaptive to the fluctuating data from the sensors. This augmented version of real-world information is then sent to the user. For a car, that usually means a display on the windshield or surrounding windows, with an augmented view of the outside world.
The user can also interact with the technology, manipulating it through inputs like voice command, touch screens, or regular old buttons.
The most obvious use for automobile AR is in the realm of navigation. Anyone who’s used a GPS system knows that occasionally, directions can be more than a little ambiguous. Perhaps it’s unclear which direction you need to take on a given street, or you’re notified of an upcoming exit when you’re busy cruising in the fast lane. Regardless, the end result is usually a U-turn, time lost, a recalculated route, and higher blood pressure.
AR has the potential to fix this by directly displaying the route you need to take onto your windshield. That means no more guessing — the path will be highlighted like a neon sign in a darkened store window.
Let’s say you’re trying to merge in stop-and-go traffic, when a leather-clad Valentino Rossi-wannabe comes tearing up between the lanes at twice the speed of sound. AR might help avert this potential disaster by highlighting the danger. Now, instead of a 1000cc-broadside to the blind spot, the driver gets a clear outline of the rapidly approaching rider and a warning to stay put. The same system would also help protect pedestrians too busy to look before crossing an intersection.
Visibility in general could also be dramatically improved. AR windshields might potentially cut through hazards like fog, smoke, or darkness to reveal something like a deer in the road or a cyclist on the shoulder.
If you’re on a road trip, it’s those impromptu forays from the beaten path that often yield the most memorable results. AR would encourage such spur-of-the-moment decisions by highlighting points of interest as you go along.
Maybe you’re into racing, and learn that there’s a nearby auto museum that just so happens to house a hero car from your childhood. Just follow the dotted line and you’re there. Or perhaps you’re feeling a bit peckish and would fancy some carne asada. The AR system would direct you to the most obscure hole-in-the-wall taqueria on the way, and even allow you to call up reviews and place an order prior to your arrival.
The BBC has highlighted one extraordinary use of AR for the less-than-mechanically-inclined. If you happen to find yourself stranded with car trouble without a nearby garage, just fire up an AR-equipped device, and you’ll be guided step-by-step on how to diagnose and fix the problem.
It’s the same kind of technology that surgeons use to prepare for complicated procedures, and while mounting a spare is slightly more straightforward than replacing an aortic valve, it’s certainly a comfort to know that there’s help available should you need it. This tech would also be massively beneficial to amateur racers and enthusiasts looking to squeeze out a few more tenths with an upgrade.
I don’t know how many video games you play, but titles in the racing genre often have an option to turn on things like a suggested racing line and a swath of performance data. Jaguar is taking this a step further with an AR windshield concept that offers the same benefits.
First timers at a particular track will be able to get up to speed much more quickly, with optimum braking-zones, apexes, and track-outs all clearly identified and available, lap after lap. Vehicle “ghosts” can also be displayed, offering the driver a past best lap run to compete against.
Of course, anyone actually using such a system will invariably be labeled a “newb,” but oh well.
Of course, not everything about AR is as easy and safe as it might appear. First of all, throwing a bunch of images and text onto a windscreen is obviously potentially quite distracting. In an attempt to make things easier, poorly designed AR systems could actually diminish safety and hamper navigation. Throw in all the other diversions that call for a driver’s attention, like phone calls, music changes, and rowdy passengers, and AR might cause more problems than it solves.
Privacy is another issue commonly raised with the proliferation of AR. Unscrupulous individuals or companies may use the technology to quickly find and exploit information that should otherwise remain hidden. For example, maybe a criminal searches your credit card statement to find that you just purchased a shiny new laptop. So, this particular individual uses AR to shadow you to your next stop, and while you’re busy buying some groceries, breaks into your and snatches your laptop.
I could take this even further. Perhaps a few tech-savvy miscreants looking for “teh lulz” figure out how to hack AR-equipped cars, enabling them to change navigation (“please take your next left into the ocean”) and alter displayed images (“why is this rainbow pop-tart cat flying through space?”). It’s sort of like the 21st-century version of pelting a car with eggs.
But in the end, these are all problems that you could associate with a range of different technologies, not just AR. Drivers will be distracted, privacy will be infringed upon, and systems get hacked. It’s up to the creators to design AR so such complications are minimized.
Despite its potential downsides, AR looks to present a multitude of benefits for the average motorist. It’s technology that’s already finding its way into other aspects of our lives, and it really is just a matter of time before the automotive industry picks it up as well.
I predict AR navigation to be the first iteration of this tech to make an appearance, with high-end luxury models offering it as an option by 2020. From there, AR will eventually trickle down to cheaper cars, becoming mainstream within the next 15 years or so.
Beyond cost and development time, I’m at a loss to find anything significant that could hold AR back from becoming as common as Bluetooth syncing. And why not? Properly implemented, AR will make driving easier, safer, and more enjoyable. And as autonomous vehicles begin their inevitable takeover, anything that keeps human drivers at the top of the automotive food chain is a positive in my book.