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Augmented Legality
Blogs | May 27, 2011
5 minute read
Augmented Legality

Augmenting Automotive Safety

Using AR to make the driving experience safer seems to be a hot idea right now.  In his keynote speech at the recent Augmented Reality Event (ARE2011) Conference, Jaron Lanier of Microsoft stressed that automobile injuries are at an unacceptably high level--and that AR can help.  My recent post examined the opposite side of the coin, analyzing various AR apps through the lens of current driver distraction laws and asking whether they would actually decrease automotive safety.

At least one technology that I discussed, however, stood out as having a real potential to make driving safer--the AR windshield.  "Such a system," reports Mashable, "can improve safety and advance knowledge behind the wheel, visually identifying important objects in physical space like road signs and the edges of the road you’re on in conditions of poor visibility."  And just this past week, Layar's blog pointed out Autoglass(R) 2020 Vision,  "another entrant in the 'AR windshield' concept market":


I ended my prior post by wondering whether hardware like this would improve auto safety so much that it would someday be required, like seat belts and air bags are now.  That, and Jaron's comments, got me thinking about some other positive ways that AR can improve driver safety.

Transparent walls. Layar also recently reminded us of this older video (from January 2010) from New Scientist, which demonstrates how a network of cameras synced with an AR windshield could allow drivers to literally see through walls, and thus spots potential dangers lurking around corners:

A system that worked as smoothly as the concept depicted here would certainly be a boon to driver safety, especially in urban settings with lots of blind corners.  But how long will it be before the technology is that seamless?  Latency and off-kilter images would make the service not only less useful, but also potentially distracting.  It would also take quite an investment (of presumably public money) to get a network of cameras installed and to keep them properly aligned. Traffic lights?  Why not traffic walls? Today's traffic lights are dots of colored light that appear relatively tiny from a driver's perspective, and are easily obscured by direct sunlight, rain, and obstructions.  But the mechanical systems required to create those "tiny" lights are actually huge, and quite expensive.  One local news source recently ran a story about the $450,000 price tag that came with a single new traffic light.  "The reason a single traffic light costs so much," the article explained, "is due to the cost of the hardware.  Each traffic signal must be custom made. In addition, the cost of steel used to support the lights and the traffic signals themselves have gone up dramatically in recent years."

When the signals are virtual, however, there are no mechanical or financial constraints on their size.  Instead of looking up to find the little dot of light in the sky, a driver viewing an upcoming intersection through an AR windshield could just as easily see a giant red wall stretching across the entire road--translucent enough not to obscure physical objects behind it, but visible enough to make it impossible to miss.

Floating, virtual roadsigns. Why stop at traffic signals?  All roadsigns could easily be augmented just as well, and made to float right at eye-level for easy viewing.  A "right-hand turn only" sign, for example, suddenly becomes a curved arrow floating in space, rather than a roadside sign or words painted on the asphalt that become blocked by other cars.  The same could be done for every one of the messages currently displayed by metal rectangles on poles. So long as this is done in an efficient manner that aids the driver rather than cluttering her view, safety should noticeably improve.

A system of AR roadsigns could also have a wealth of collateral benefits beyond driver assistance.  The most obvious is reducing government spending; virtual roadsigns would cost a whole lot less than tangible ones--after the network needed to project them was in place.  (And creating that infrastructure would be no mean feat; it would have to be widespread, reliable, and universally adopted before physical signs could be done away with, so this is a long-term vision.)  A less tangible, but perhaps more impactful result would be the beautification of our roadways--especially if physical billboards were also replaced by virtual advertisements, a la Minority Report.  Imagine if residents, pedestrians, passengers--everyone except the AR-equipped driver--could enjoy the scenic natural beauty alongside the road, unobstructed by a sea of signage?Virtual Directions. This option overlaps the AR windshield concept a bit, but may be available before that type of hardware hits the market.  I've already mentioned the Virtual Cable from MVS – an AR navigation system that was on display at ARE2011:

The appeal of this solution is its simplicity--a thin red line that's easy to follow and doesn't obstruct your view.  And it works through a heads-up display projected onto a "dumb" windshield, rather than requiring a more advanced,  "smart" windshield with sensors that perceive the road ahead. Something like this may be the next evolution in navigation aids.

Virtual Speed Displays. AR could be a boon to traffic cops as well.  At least one U.S. court has already upheld the secret installation by law enforcement of GPS beacons that track a vehicle's movement.  The smarter our cars get, the more likely it will be that they'll have GPS devices of their own built in.  Add AR to the mix, and it's a short step into a world where traffic cops come equipped with radar guns that display the speed at which a vehicle is traveling directly above the vehicle itself.  (Of course, by that point, we may not need police officers to hand out the tickets at all; our speeds would be automatically monitored by a central system that churns out tickets automatically.)

Virtual speed displays could also benefit drivers.  It's not always easy to immediately tell, for example, how quickly a car ahead of you is decelerating.  Someone slamming on their brakes might trigger an accentuated warning of some kind to other drivers.AR-Equipped Auto Repair. ARE2011 was flush with examples of companies using AR to assist mechanics and workmen with the assembly and repair of mechanical devices.  It may not be long before an auto manufacturer adopts--or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or other government body prescribes--a uniform system of markers painted onto auto parts, to allow AR eyewear-equipped mechanics to more easily diagnose and repair automobiles. These are some of the ideas I have on this topic after getting the chance to mingle with the leading innovators in the AR field.  Do you have other ideas?  How else might AR make our most common, and most deadly, form of motor transportation a little safer?