On Monday, Acura announced it's sort of making one of my dreams come true. As a way to launch the new 2018 TLX A-Spec, it's debuting an augmented reality helmet. Four "technology influencers"—Zachary Levi, Sam Gorski, Dom Esposito, and Maude Garrett (no, I've never heard of them either)—are going to compete against each other in a race that will be livestreamed onFacebook at 8pm EDT (1am UK). Each driver gets three laps, competing to set the fastest time of the day. But this is no ordinary time-trial or autocross; it's an augmented reality course with obstacles that will change on each of the three laps.
The special helmets, developed with help from Current Studios, use a gyroscope to monitor the drivers' head positions relative to the environment. A full-color, 80-degree HD augmented reality view of the track is projected onto the visor. The actual graphics are being displayed on a 5-inch HD screen in a custom console on the back seat, which is then projected onto the visor. Data from the cars' ABS system (wheel speed and direction) will be used to position the obstacles relative to each of the TLXs.
Since this is 2017 and audience engagement is the name of the game, viewers will also have a chance to affect the outcome. Acura says that "[p]rompts will encourage fans to use reaction emojis throughout the race, revealing shortcuts and clearing obstacles to influence the course’s landscape." Take that, Formula E fan boost!
It's certainly a whimsical way of introducing the world to a new car, but the reality here is sadly a little ways off from my actual dream of an augmented reality racing helmet. Over on the military side of things where budgets are vast, the idea has been relatively advanced. A core component of the Lockheed Martin F-35 jet is an augmented reality helmet that lets the pilot see through the plane's skin, and both the Navy and Army are also developing AR systems. And we demoed the first steps toward an automotive AR enhancement for driving in 2015 when BMW, Qualcomm, and the Osterhout Design Group demoed an AR system that let you see through the doors of a Mini.
However, the military systems have been costly to develop and are far out of reach of the average civilian. And that Mini Augmented Reality demo was just a proof of concept. What I really want is a racing helmet that can feed information from a data acquisition system (like the TraqMate I wrote about here) and project it onto the visor. In addition to useful data like your rpm and current gear, you could also add GPS-based alerts like braking points and so on—think a real-life, augmented reality version of the HUD displays in racing games like Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo.
Sadly, while I know that some racing helmet manufacturers have been thinking about the idea, it appears that it's still a ways away from being a commercially available product. Development of the F-35's system, built by Rockwell Collins ESA Vision Systems International, was no easy task, and for prosumer use there would still be a lot of work to do with regard to weight, crash performance, and cost. Over on the two-wheeled side of things, a startup called Skully was developing a less ambitious AR motorcycle helmet, but that company crashed and burned in 2016. A number of other cycling or motorcycling AR helmets have been announced, but plenty of these also appear to be vaporware.
In the meantime, Acura's "What a Race" sounds like an intriguing idea that might help the future helmet of my dreams get some more traction.