Augmented Windshields?
By Howard Rheingold, Tue Jun 29 16:15:00 GMT 2004

Heads-up displays, first invented for fighter aircraft more than a decade ago, have morphed into "augmented reality" goggles that project an informational overlay over the real world as the goggle-wearer navigates through it. Information about people, places, and things can be seen only by the wearer, displayed automatically or on command.

Augmented reality could become an immensely useful way of combining the informational power of the virtual world with the reality of the physical world. Overlaying a schematic diagram over machinery, or being able to see the conduits under a street are obvious industrial examples. And the automobile windshield is an obvious candidate for experimentation, if not for immediate application.

On a recent visit to the Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz, Austria, I saw an experimental version of augmented reality designed to project onto the windshield of a car. Senior Executive Developer Horst Hörtner was kind enough to show me around the lab and present some demos. Instead of looking at an arrow on a map displayed on a screen, the Information and Navigation Systems Through Augmented Reality (INSTAR) prototype enables the driver to see a transparent arrow floating in space in real time, signaling exactly where to turn en route to the designated destination, or warning of a pedestrian or oncoming bus.

Real-time video, sophisticated pattern recognition software, location sensors and optical techniques combine to connect augmented reality with mobile telematics. The combination of the Internet and mobile devices is not going to end up looking like the Internet as we know it on mobile phones as we know them. And the infiltration of the automobile by media and computing devices isn't likely to stop. INSTAR might just point in one of the directions mobile, location-aware devices will be used in the future.

INSTAR certainly looked useful -- the colored overlays give directional and even warning information without impairing the driver's view, subtly directing attention while navigating. I didn't try out a working automobile model, but watched a video of a working model projected on a screen.

Siemens CT asked Gustav Pomberger, chair for software engineering at the Johannes Kepler University of Linz, to team up with the Ars Electronica Futurelab to create the mobile augmented reality project that turned into INSTAR. The Futurelab, located a block away from Ars Electronica's distinctive Museum of the Future on the Danube, has been creating working prototypes of both artistic and industrial applications of virtual environments. In addition to highway construction simulation in a CAVE immersive room, a working immersive model of a dock facility and driving simulation virtual environments, I watched them working on a performance I'm very sorry to miss -- Wagner's "Das Rheingold" staged in a virtual environment, with huge screen and 3D glasses for everyone in the audience, with 3D graphics synced to the music.

I recall from my previous visit to the Interactive Institute in Stockholm ("The Interactive Road project invents and investigates technology to increase the experience of road use, i.e. to make it more interesting and enjoyable to pass time on the roads. We will evaluate our interpretation of enjoyable driving as collaborative flaneuring"), poking around the wireless laboratories in Kista and from reading reports from the Viktoria Institute, that Sweden was a hotbed of telematics research. From what I've seen, the technologies behind applications like INSTAR are close to ready for road-testing.

The obstacles to buying INSTAR installed in your next luxury battle cruiser, with good reason, will be political and regulatory in nature. Although any doofus can talk on the phone while driving the car and feeding the kid, and you can buy SUVs with a dozen television screens and dashboard navigators, it's going to take some convincing to put cars on the road that overlay illusory yellow arrows on the driver's view out the windshield. Nevertheless, with all the technologies available for distracting the attention of drivers, it seems to me an altogether good idea to study technologies that can help focus attention on the road.