AR Backseat Experience Could Lyft the Ride

Automotive infotainment is improving but is still a few “parsecs” away from a Star Wars “Dejarik” moment, where passengers are playing augmented reality games in the backseat as they hurtle down the highway.

Still, Unity Technologies claims it’s on the right road, unveiling a new platform to move in-car AR and VR experiences closer to a backseat near you. It is partnering with carmakers, Tier 1s and others in the auto business to deliver AR and VR experiences, some of which will bring entertainment to life in the vehicle. It also works in other capacities with eight of the world’s 10 leading automakers including BMW, Volkswagen, Ford and Mercedes-Benz.

At a recent event in Los Angeles, the technology company’s platform was on display. REWIND, a virtual reality and creative production company, partnered with Unity to employ the latter’s technology to create an augmented reality experience for Lyft. It’s in keeping with Lyft’s efforts to create the always-desired “surprise and delight” factor for its customers, according to Ethan Eyler, director of ride experience for the car hailing company. He recalled past campaigns where they created dozens of replica cars from the “Ghostbusters” films and another partnership with Netflix for in-car “Stranger Things” experiences.

However, he says tech from the REWIND/Unity partnership could be a game changer in the competitive car hailing business for entertainment and potentially generating additional revenue through ads or other creative content. He said: “Increasingly we’re living in a world where someone or something is doing the driving for you. This unlocks a huge opportunity for in-ride entertainment. Now the question is, how do we scale these experiences so every rider gets to experience it?”

A backseat AR experience may be the answer to that question because it could be rolled out across the fleet at a fraction of the cost of outfitting the replica cars of those aforementioned campaigns. The first AR iteration from REWIND that was on display in LA was demonstrated via video that showed off the tech and its early possibilities.

Immersive entertainment experience

Rick Davis, REWIND’s general manager talked about the tech involved in creating the experience. He noted they solved one of the biggest pitfalls for creating experiences in a moving car, having characters fly out of view and into “outerspace”. He explained that Unity’s platform combined with smart camera technology and the car’s GPS might solve the problem without using an inertial measurement unit (IMU). “The end result, we were able to keep your character fixed to the environment. The theory here is if the device knows where it is relative to the car and the car knows where it is relative to the world, your experience should be able to play out as intended.” He did not explain, however, how the system would cope with the GPS canyon blind-spots suffered in many built up cities.

Davis added that the experiences would not need proprietary devices to operate: “It works on an iPad or iPhone. Once characters are locked to this world, we created a character and story for Lyft riders. In this first test, we built a brand-new kind of [virtual] stage in the back of the car. The [AR-generated] tour guide actually controls the physical lights and experience, reacts to user behavior and is controlled by a dedicated iPad in the hands of the rider.”

As for the underlying platform, Edward Martin, senior technical product manager for Unity says REWIND used his company’s real-time 3D development platform to build the AR experience. “Unity allows developers to import art and assets, such as 2D and 3D, from other software such as Photoshop,” Martin told TU-Automotive, adding: “It also provides the framework to assemble these assets into scenes and environments; add lighting, audio, special effects, physics and animation, interactivity; and edit, debug and optimize the content for your target platforms.”

Beyond the backseat

Martin also said Unity is the world’s most widely used real-time 3D development platform, powering more than 60% of all AR and VR experiences but he added that its automotive work is not limited to aftermarket products.

“For experiences built into a vehicle, we work with both OEMs and Tier 1s, since they are the ones who must develop, certify and deploy these types of experiences. Applications targeting end-user devices can be developed by anyone – an OEM, a Tier 1, or even an individual developer.”

He notes the automakers employ the technology for a variety of purposes ranging from VR design review to interactive VR training to a virtual showroom. He claims manufacturers save an average of $3M-$5M for each model designed on the platform. Its tech was used by Lexus to allow customers to personalize and buy the Lexus LC500 in VR before the physical car was available in retail.

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