The Disrupters: Navdy on the real power of AR

Doug Simpson envisions a world where technology augments a driver’s reality, hears Louis Bedigian.

Augmented reality (AR) is still largely a prototype-level technology with the promise of game-changing features that could alter consumers’ daily lives. From work applications to entertainment, AR should offer something for everyone when the tech is finally ready.

Automotive is another area AR could impact. Unlike the proposed work apps (where a professional might don a pair of glasses at the start of the day), in-car AR could swap a clunky wearable for visuals that are displayed right on the windshield. This would eliminate some of the problems associated with current augmented devices, including weight, processing power and battery constraints.

Doug Simpson, CEO of Navdy, has high hopes for this technology. The company developed an augmented device that keeps drivers’ eyes on the road by implementing gesture controls and a clear heads-up display (HUD). Now Simpson is looking to the future of AR, which he believes will fundamentally change the way drivers commute.

“Augmented reality has a big role to play in the car,” he said. “We think being able to superimpose the route that you’re following on top of the roadway would be the most natural and intuitive way to navigate. At that point it becomes as easy as following the car in front of you because you understand what lane to be in to make the manoeuvre.”

Better road signs, virtually

Few road elements are created equal, least of all road signs. Some are small and difficult to read, particularly in inclement weather. Simpson thinks that AR will reduce this issue – and improve navigation – by highlighting road signs. It may also be more effective than a 2D map displayed via GPS or smartphone, which require drivers to look away from the road.

The potential benefits of AR are not limited to navigation. Drivers may also use the technology to emphasise key destinations, popular outlets and other points of interest. Said Simpson: “You can imagine a ride-share driver trying to find their customer and being able to highlight which pedestrian is the one they’re looking for. We do imagine that it would require some tech understanding, starting with the customer’s location based on their phone and being able to feed that information to the ride share driver. That’s something that’s happening already. There’s an opportunity to take that to the next level.”

Big cities present another challenge that Simpson hopes AR can solve. He added: “In New York there’s a lot of skyscrapers. Location accuracy can be a problem. Just matching up the customer with the vehicle can sometimes be a bit of a challenge.”

Autonomous assistant

AR technology is unique in that it might have a purpose in all vehicle types, including those that drive themselves. Said Simpson: “In this interim period between semi-autonomous and fully-autonomous cars, AR may also present an opportunity to help consumers understand when they might want to take over control of the car. Maybe the car does not actually see something that it should, or the driver prefers to take a different route and wants to influence what manoeuvre the car is planning to take.”

That is just the beginning. In the long run, AR could be transformed from an in-car assistant to an entertainment feature designed to amuse bored passengers. “We do think longer-term that’s definitely an interesting opportunity once cars are fully autonomous,” said Simpson. He also hopes that AR will provide consumers with more information about the buildings and historical landmarks within any given area. The tech could also synch up with social media and alert passengers when a connected friend is nearby.

Other enhancements

Beyond AR, Navdy is looking at two technologies that could further enhance the cars of tomorrow. The first is gesture recognition, which has received a lot of attention from electronics manufacturers. Switch, the latest gaming device from Nintendo, features a controller that can identify very specific gestures, including those for rock, paper and scissors. This appears to be far more advanced than anything the automobile industry has introduced, but there’s a reason for that.

Said Simpson: “We initially evaluated the gesture recognition technologies already on the market. There’s a lot of them that work inside the home and other environments. We found none of them seemed to work really well in the car. It’s a challenging environment with a lot of constantly changing lighting conditions. That makes it more challenging for computer vision. There’s also the need to filter out normal steering wheel movements so it’s not misinterpreted as an unintended gesture.”

The second technology is voice recognition. Simpson noted that “lots of OEMs” have implemented different versions of it but said there has been “limited success thus far.” He warned: “If the accuracy is not very high, then it becomes frustrating and potentially distracting. The accuracy rate is rapidly improving, however. There’s tremendous improvement year-over-year.”

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