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Here’s what the future of car navigation looks like

car crash
Reuters/Mal Langsdon
He didn’t have a head-up display.
By Leo Mirani


Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In 1946, Jorge Luis Borges wrote “On Exactitude in Science,” a very short story about an empire so obsessed with cartography that it eventually built a map as vast as the territory “which coincided point for point with it.” That vision is now coming close to being reality.

“Bona fide automotive AR [augmented reality] application is near a tipping point,” write three researchers from Virginia Tech in the February issue of ”Proceedings of the IEEE,” a peer-reviewed journal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Among the most interesting developments they list is the use of head-up displays, or the projection of information in your field of vision, for in-car navigation. It is vision that dispenses with GPS devices and smartphone apps in favor of seeing the map overlaid on the real word in front of you. And it’s coming soon:

“The infrastructure needed to create, synthesize, and route meaningful geolocated data to our vehicles is already here. Usable AR display technology is already in vehicle in the form of video-based backup assist AR, and recent investments in windshield-based optical see-through displays may enable commercially available systems within the next few years.”

Proceedings of the IEEE
How on-screen or wearable augmented reality can work in either “screen-fixed” or “world-fixed” modes, compared to in-car devices.

Carmakers have been experimenting with head-up displays (HUD) in cars since the late 1990s. But early efforts have been cautious, displaying only speed and other basic information near the bottom of the windscreen. New technologies allow them to be bolder: the authors see HUD, long used by fighter pilots, as becoming a natural part of looking through the windshield, and, in some cases, being embedded on real-world objects such as the road or buildings. It is Borges’s 1:1 map come to life. Indeed, BMW already has a prototype AR windshield that overlays information onto the road surface to indicate upcoming turns.

Proceedings of the IEEE
BMW’s prototype windshield.

While navigation is the flashiest application of augmented reality in cars, the technology would also make driving safer. For one thing, the system lets drivers keep their eyes on the road. But combined with sensors and cameras, the system could clearly indicate the distance between applying the brakes and stopping, warn about pedestrians or cars in the blind zone, or indicate that the driver is in danger of veering out of his lane or too close to another car.

Proceedings of the IEEE
Augmented reality can indicate braking distance, lane drifts and proximity to nearby cars, and warn of objects in blind spots.

But AR brings its own safety issues. Designers would need to get the depth of vision right in order to not confuse drivers. Static head-up displays, which don’t attach themselves to the outside world, must be careful not to block any part of the windshield. And any images need to be carefully laid out to not confuse drivers.

Proceedings of the IEEE
The driver of this car may know exactly where he’s going but he probably can’t see the nearby car hidden behind the map.

Carmakers have plenty of reasons to feel confident that augmented-reality navigation will catch on. For one thing, they are already busy connecting their cars to the internet, installing operating systems, and dreaming up new ways to allow drivers to check Facebook without crashing into a tree. More importantly, the appetite for navigation is huge: In December, more than 374 million people logged into a navigation app on their iPhones or Android devices, according to Priori Data, a research firm. That’s far in excess of the 241 million people who logged into Twitter that month, and more than double the number of people who used Twitter from their mobile phones. What’s more, well over half of those navigation apps used were paid for.

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