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AR windshields keep your eyes on the (augmented) road

Tech could start showing up in cars by the end of the year

TOKYO Augmented reality, or AR, could show up on some car windshields later this year, providing a peek at a technology that is expected to really take off in a few years.

AR systems can superimpose route indicators, pedestrian alerts and other graphic information in the driver's field of view, enhancing both safety and convenience. Soon, AR will be added to the list of optional features car buyers can choose from.

German autoparts maker Continental is leading the way. This year it plans to mass-produce AR head-up displays -- translucent projections, sometimes referred to as HUDs, that allow pilots or drivers to see information without having to look down -- and market them to European makers of luxury cars.

Augmented reality technology can incorporate the functions of conventional dashboards.

Japanese rivals plan to market their own AR options around 2020.

FOLLOW THE LINES In automotive AR, some images can be made to appear relative to actual objects ahead. The technology is becoming commercially viable thanks to advances in driver assistance systems that use cameras to recognize and map the immediate streetscape around a vehicle.

These systems can now "draw" lines on the road that drivers can follow to their destinations.

The rapid adoption of the camera systems has made them more affordable -- and relieved AR developers from having to build their own cameras from scratch, an expensive endeavor.

Automakers, too, are getting into the game. Last year, Germany's BMW unveiled a concept car loaded with AR features. Its system can, for example, display an image to help the driver see a cyclist darting in from a blind spot. The projected images change as the vehicle moves.

BMW’s Vision Next 100 concept, left, alerts the driver to the presence of, say, a bicyclist, top right, that might otherwise seem to come out of nowhere.

In Japan, Toyota Motor and Mazda Motor have begun studying safety-oriented AR.

The automotive AR expected this year will be limited to simple functions, such as indicating what lane to be in. But in the years ahead, the systems will gain more skills, like imposing images on dangerous obstacles to make the driver more aware.

As self-driving technology advances and drivers are freed from steering, AR may create new business opportunities. One possibility is an automotive version of the "Pokemon Go" smartphone game. Such a game would impose characters on windshields to add a bit of adventure to any journey.

Another possibility: displaying ads from stores and other businesses a car is about to approach.

POWER PLAYERS Carmakers believe the leading AR technology companies are poised to grab a strong position in the automotive industry, since the technology will obviate the need for the gauges and displays on today's dashboards.

The companies gunning for this kind of leverage include Continental, Denso and Nippon Seiki. Meanwhile, Konica Minolta and Pioneer are trying to enter the field by tweaking proprietary technologies.

Continental's technology combines a conventional HUD and a monocular camera originally developed for driver assistance systems. With the camera, the system can detect lane dividing lines and the vehicle ahead, then superimpose graphics accordingly.

Continental’s AR system can superimpose arrows on the road.
Information that existing HUD systems display, right, is retained by the new system.

It uses arrows to guide the driver along the shortest route to a given destination. In addition, it can impose lines on the vehicle ahead to indicate that the adaptive cruise control is engaged and the system is following that particular vehicle. It can also show a dotted line on the road between the driver's car and the one ahead, to help maintain a safe distance.

In a prototype system, graphic images are made to appear as though they are 7.5 meters ahead of the driver's eyes. Information that is not directly related to the driver's view, such as speed, appears 2.4 meters ahead. This is the same as on conventional HUDs.

The images that seem to be imposed on objects are produced using a digital micromirror -- a device composed of a large number of tiny mirrors arrayed on a flat surface, each one representing a single pixel on a computer display. By changing the angle of the individual mirrors, the device can reflect light from a source so as to form desired images in specific locations.

Images created by this device are then magnified as they bounce off multiple concave mirrors set up behind the dashboard, until finally they are projected onto the windshield.

Drivers need only keep their eyes on the AR-enhanced road ahead.

This story has been adapted from an article originally published in the June 2017 issue of Nikkei Automotive.

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