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Augmented Reality On The Road

Bridging the gap between traditional driving and automation

26Apr

When most people think of augmented reality (AR), the mind goes straight to gaming. The overwhelming success of Pokémon Go brought AR into the public conversation for the first time on a mass scale, and there are a number of headset-based games on the way. Less intrusive and solitary than the similar (and often confused) virtual reality (VR), AR is a far more feasible option for real world integration and use outside of the home. Pokémon Go is yet to be matched in terms of popularity as the burgeoning technology finds its feet in the mainstream, but other games will doubtless steal the spotlight once the technology required to play them becomes commonplace.

Gaming is far from the only use for AR, though. As the technology develops, a host of potential uses are becoming apparent, from military training to advertising and promotions. One example is that of a plumber’s apprentice being sent out to a relatively tricky job alone. Where previously they would have to be directed by phone call or, preferably, in person, the job could be directed using a mobile phone’s camera or an AR headset further down the line. With the apprentice’s view available to the more experienced plumber remotely, it could be annotated and more detailed instruction could be given in real-time. Solutions such as this will see AR have a far greater effect on the world of work than VR, and could consequently see the technology have a far bigger impact overall.

One perhaps under-considered application for AR is on the road. At CES 2017, there were a number of automotive equipment makers presenting augmented reality products that would have information beamed directly onto the windshield. Safety warnings, environmental information, directions, speedometers - all of this information could, arguably, be better placed directly in the driver’s field of vision rather than having them glance to the side to a sat nav, or down at a traditional speedometer. Many of these already exist, but what the AR component will make possible is for the windshield to highlight particular elements of the view ahead, something that could be particularly helpful in the often chaotic and overstimulating urban environments in which many people drive.

One such product is being developed by a British car company. In partnership with Panasonic, the manufacturer is producing an AR heads-up display that can automatically detect the size and position of the driver and adjust its screen view accordingly, according to Wired. ’Augmented reality technology means that this HUD can then be used to make the driver aware of potential dangers,’ a spokesperson said at CES. ‘When you talk about augmented reality at the moment, nobody has tried it in a real car. There is a trend now to replace the mirrors with a central display. We are trying to move the instrument cluster.’

In its current form, the car is nothing more than an experimental prototype to show users how the heads-up display might work, but the potential applications of the tech are fascinating. ‘The system brings unprecedented levels of visual information to the driver,’ Panasonic said in a statement. ‘The cameras can also be combined to produce a variety of different views, including a bird’s-eye-view of the car, projected in the HUD to give the driver a complete 360-degree top-down image. The cameras also negate the need for physical driving mirrors, with images projected in the HUD instead.’

Another quite ingenious innovation comes from the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, where Chao Wang and his colleagues have developed an app for communication between drivers, all through augmented reality. Some 1500 people are killed every year from aggressive driving alone in the US. The group has developed a projected screen that sits just in front of the driver on the windscreen. A user’s smartphone camera can recognize a sticker placed in the leading driver’s rear window, and the option is given for the overtaking driver to leave notes such as ‘rushing to the hospital’ or ‘desperately late for a meeting’ to explain the driving and, hopefully, quell some road rage.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop users lying - though there will be limits on how much users can use the system - but on the whole the technology’s heart is in the right place. Another feature Wang is hoping to add to the tech is the ability to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ other drivers, a feature that could build up a fairly comprehensive view of how aggressively a driver acts on the road. This information could, in theory, be used to calculate how dangerous different drivers are and therefore their insurance premiums.

Cycling is set to see a similar innovation hit the market in the near future. The UK’s CityConnect, with over £60 million in funding from the Department of Transport’s Cycle City Ambition Grant, is developing an app with AR capabilities to tap into new groups. There have been concerns about safety when gameifying something like cycling, but those involved say that GPS and other sensors will be used to alert the cyclist of upcoming junctions, for example, or when to slow down. ‘By developing the proof of concept for the AR cycling app, we will have the perfect opportunity to engage with groups who traditionally don’t tend to cycle,’ said Simon Couth, Head of the Digital Media Working Academy at the University of Bradford. ‘With the help from the CityConnect cycling engagement team, we will work with groups such as young professionals or older members of the Asian community to find out how an AR cycling app could encourage them to cycle more.’

Both AR and VR are set to make significant waves in the consumer market in the coming years. While they may both be largely the preserve of the tech enthusiast at present, an explosion in real world applications will bring the technology to the mass market. If it can be proven that AR capabilities in road vehicles improve safety as well as being a neat aesthetic gimmick, then there is no reason they won’t see rapid adoption in what is a hyper-competitive industry. 

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