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“The next log­i­cal step for AR is to work not just with our nav screens, but on our wind­screens”

What’s the next big thing in au­to­mo­tive tech? Au­ton­o­mous cars? Fly­ing cars? Cars with paint that can re­pel bird drop­pings? All of these would bring forth a rev­o­lu­tion in per­sonal trans­port, but un­til boffins get over the tech­ni­cal hur­dles, I’d like to put for­ward an­other fu­ture devel­op­ment we should be keep­ing an eye on: aug­mented re­al­ity (AR for short).

Many of you will know AR as that thing where you hold your phone up and vir­tual ob­jects ap­pear to min­gle with the real ob­jects on the screen. Tony Stark’s had it. You’ve used it to col­lect vir­tual Poké­mon, or Snapchat dog noses onto your face, but it’s also com­ing to cars. In fact, it’s al­ready here.

AR fea­tures in the new Merc A-Class. This unas­sum­ing hatch packs an as­ton­ish­ing new sat­nav the likes of which I’ve never seen. Its front-fac­ing cam­era plays a live feed of the road ahead, while com­put­ers over­lay vir­tual ar­rows you can fol­low to your des­ti­na­tion, along with float­ing street name signs and points of in­ter­est that ‘at­tach’ them­selves to build­ings you might be in­ter­ested in.

It is bril­liant – cool enough to make me want a bog stan­dard A-Class. And it’s only the be­gin­ning. The next log­i­cal step for AR is to work not just with our nav screens, but on our wind­screens, cre­at­ing gi­ant head-up dis­plays that give drivers a more de­tailed pic­ture of their en­vi­ron­ment.

Imag­ine this: you’re cruis­ing along and the wind­screen looks like a mix­ture of re­al­ity and graph­ics from your old Atari. There are vir­tual lines and ar­rows painted along the high street into the dis­tance, guid­ing you to your next turn. You’re a lit­tle heavy-footed, so the speed limit floats gen­tly into your line of sight, prompt­ing you to slow down. There’s a car to your left, but an­i­mated across it is the vir­tual out­line of a per­son sprint­ing across the road.

Your car’s cam­eras have spot­ted their ap­proach and the wind­screen is ren­der­ing a vir­tual ver­sion of that jay­walker, let­ting you see through traf­fic. You ap­ply the brakes and, as the ‘ac­tual’ per­son be­comes vis­i­ble, a di­a­logue box ap­pears above their head, show­ing their name and Tin­der pro­file, re­veal­ing them as your old school bully. AR has saved their life. You re­alise there are some draw­backs to having AR.

Sure, it could be com­pli­cated if the driver is over­loaded with info that ob­scures the real world, but done right, AR could in­crease driver con­ve­nience, re­duce ac­ci­dents and, most im­por­tantly, look awe­some. You could even have a ver­sion for the track that shows brak­ing, turn-in and ac­cel­er­a­tion points – a rac­ing line like the one in Gran Turismo.

Ob­vi­ously there are ob­sta­cles. First off, the pow­ers that be would never let it hap­pen overnight. Sec­ond, the tech­nol­ogy is still in its in­fancy. While it may be in­cred­i­bly easy to aug­ment graph­ics onto a video feed, it’s tougher to do so on a clear wind­screen in a man­ner that won’t lead to peo­ple crash­ing.

The good news is that there are some very clever folks on the case. Jaguar has ex­per­i­mented with a 360º Vir­tual Wind­screen

(with ‘see-through’ pil­lars) as have Peu­geot-Citroen and Hyundai. Tech com­pa­nies are ac­tively de­vel­op­ing so­lu­tions, too. Most, it must be said, are ei­ther fes­ter­ing in the kick­starter phase, or have al­ready sunk due to be­ing pants, but there are oth­ers that look promis­ing. Wayray, in Switzer­land, has at­tracted mil­lions of dol­lars’ in­vest­ment from China, in an ef­fort to get an AR-HUD on sale in 2018.

I firmly be­lieve this is the fu­ture. I just don’t want to get so ex­cited by it that I’m dis­ap­pointed when the tech faces in­evitable de­lays or set­backs. I’ll wait pa­tiently, con­tent in the knowl­edge that AR is around the cor­ner – the A-Class has proven that. Un­til it gets here prop­erly, maybe we should all dou­ble our

ef­forts to de­velop paint that de­flects pi­geon guano?

“The next log­i­cal step for AR is to work not just with our nav screens, but on our wind­screens”

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