In one vision of the future of transportation, humans are mere passengers, the ballistic baggage of all-knowing, all-seeing computers zipping about, safely and efficiently in fully autonomous cars. And the robot drivers are coming, no doubt. But if you want to retain any control of how you move through Tomorrowland—or just improve how you navigate today’s world—you’ll need a tool that upgrades your skill level.
You’ll need augmented reality, often confused with its cousin, virtual reality, which integrates digital intel into your natural view.
Thanks to efforts like Mircosoft’s HoloLens and secretive startup Magic Leap, the tech that many people know from Pokémon Go will be a $90 billion market by 2020, according to consulting firm Digi-Capital. That market could touch everything from entertainment to education to building Porsches, but few areas could benefit as dramatically as moving vehicles, where speed and concentration make the real-time integration of vital data—increasingly available by the gigaload—a tantalizing goal.
If you’ve used AR in a moving vehicle, it’s likely because you’ve driven a luxury car with a head-up display, or you’re a fighter pilot. Until now, the tech has either been either static and flat (projecting speed and navigation directions onto your windshield) or sophisticated but wildly expensive (like the $400,000 headsets that turn F-35 pilots into cyborgs). Now, low-cost hardware and innovative new applications are pushing the tech into accessible, down-to-Earth environments.
Well, almost down to Earth. Take the headgear San Diego-based startup Aero Glass is developing for pilots of small aircraft. The tech provides safety and navigation information in “true 3D”, placing the data and graphics at relative distances to objects they’re identifying, and oriented or aligned with them based on their position. The graphics become part of the scene: Even as the aircraft moves and the pilot’s gaze shifts, the lines highlighting the runway, for instance, stay there, like the first down line in a football game on TV.
Aero Glass bases its product on the on the R-7 augmented glasses produced by San Francisco-based Osterhout Design Group. Running Android and powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor, they use a 1080p camera to read the user’s view, a 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyroscope, and 3-axis magnetometer to track head movements and orientation, and dual 720p screens in the lenses to project digital overlays. Aero Glass’s hasn’t announced how much it will charge for its version, which will include aviation-specific sensors and tracking hardware add-ons, but expects to start deliveries within a few years.
The goal is to reduce pilot workload and boost situational awareness. Pilots cause two-thirds of plane crashes, often because they misinterpret complex instruments, or misunderstand what the computer systems are doing. “We’re helping pilots understand their situation in a more natural manner,” says Aero Glass co-founder Ákos Maróy.
That’s just for the private pilot. On the commercial side, Airbus Defense and Space recently unveiled a head-mounted variation of its Sferion pilot-assistance technology, designed to help helicopter pilots navigate low-visibility conditions. The system uses lidar sensors to detect power lines, buildings, vehicles, and more, and projects them digitally into the pilot’s view, along with horizon and runway or landing-pad locations.
Even the stodgy FAA is on board. In November, it approved the use of “enhanced flight vision systems.” Previously, pilots had to be able to see the runway with their regular human eyes, or abort the landing. Now, they can use digital displays to guide them to touchdown, in even the worst conditions. Right now, that means infrared and radar-based enhancement systems. But the rule change would permit more advanced AR technologies, and also permits head-mounted displays instead of displays stuck on instrument panels.
The military applications are obvious. That’s why Saab Australia is working with Microsoft to adapt its new HoloLens system for military aviation. Though it give few details, graphics from the Royal Australian Air Force suggest the tech will offer much of what Aero Glass does in terms of navigation and piloting, but also serve as a single-point interface for the many and complex data streams available to military pilots.
Today, if a human pilot wants to keep track of a group of drones and their ground targets, he usually must watch multiple screens, compiling the data in his mind. Augmented reality can present all that information in one place. “Rapid comprehension accelerates decision making which, in turn, accelerates taking action to deal with a problem,” says Inger Lawes, who heads Saab Australia’s mixed-reality lab.
The screen-free approach resonates with the innovators working to bring AR to cars. At CES last month, auto suppliers Harman, Continental, and Visteon all unveiled AR systems that project information into the driver’s field of view, completely circumventing dash-based instruments. Harman uses digital overlays to convey speed and braking information of other vehicles on the road and insert prominent street-sign graphics into the field of view to help with navigation. Meanwhile, Continental, working with projection-technology specialist DigiLens, showed its system for projecting AR data onto the windshield itself, obviating the need for headgear. Visteon’s system demonstrated a sensor-driving head-up display that projects warnings of possible vehicular and pedestrian obstacles onto the windshield.
BMW has some bigger ideas. Last year it showed off its MINI Augmented Vision, a system that uses Osterhout glasses to pop navi directions, text messages, and x-ray vision right into the driver’s eyeballs. That last feature works by projecting camera feeds from outside the car into the glasses. This year, to mark its 100th birthday, BMW showed off its “Vision Next 100” concept car, including an AR-enhanced windshield that flags obstacles and provides data streams that completely replace the dashboard instrumentation.
This October, it revealed a motorcycle concept paired with an AR visor. While riding through twisties, for instance, the glasses would show the bike’s lean angle and riding line information to maximize performance and safety. It would also react to the rider’s focus, disappearing the data when he or she is looking straight ahead—unless needed or requested—and re-emerging when less concentration is required.
Maybe you’re wondering how that visor would fit under your motorcycle helmet. BMW isn’t: The automaker is so confident in this system’s potential (along with tech like collision avoidance), it thinks crashes will someday be an obsolete concern. The tech is still years away—BMW hasn’t disclosed any specific rollout plans—but it’s an optimistic vision that, like the other AR innovations positioned to advance human-operated transportation, might actually be a lot closer than you think. Ride on.