No Augmenting Reality While Driving?

A recent article in MIT’s Technology Review raises several, very practical questions about how the daily use of augmented reality eyewear will affect us. I want to focus here on just one of the issues it raises–the risks of driving while augging.

Driver distraction is already widely recognized as an epidemic. Simply talking on your cell phone while driving used to get people up in arms, and it’s still restricted in some areas. But now those who text while driving are the new pariahs. And not without reason. Multiple mass transit disasters and notable deaths have been blamed on texting. Some studies show that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving drunk. Yet large percentages of drivers can’t help but continue to do it.

My home state of Michigan recently became one of several jurisdictions to ban the practice as a primary offense. The Detroit suburb of Troy went one step further to prohibit not only texting and calling, but also “any other activity that can distract a driver and affect their ability to safely operate the vehicle. Activities under this classification include, but are not limited to, eating, grooming, reading, writing, or any other activity that prevents someone from having control of the vehicle with at least one hand on the wheel.”

How would AR devices measure up by these standards? For starters, it seems clear that using an AR app (or any other app, for that matter) on your smartphone while driving is the functional equivalent of texting. You may not be inputting information into the phone, but you’ve still got your eyes on it rather than the road.

This is only slightly less true if you’re a driver peering through your smartphone to augment the view directly ahead of you–say, by checking out the Yelp reviews of places you’re driving past, as in this photo. It may be the digital equivalent of looking at signs, a map, or a billboard while you drive, which can be distracting but not illegal (except maybe in Troy). But the app doesn’t know you’re driving, and can put an awful lot of information between you and what’s in front of you.

What about smartphone apps that are designed to be used while driving? Well, just because someone wants you to use it behind the wheel doesn’t make it a good idea. Take this “Augmented Driving” iPhone app, for example. Apparently, it “detects your lane and other vehicles in front of you and provides useful information for your driving situation,” but only “in good lighting conditions during daytime for visible lane markings on highways and country roads and for detection of regular cars. For operation, a fix mount is required.”

But suppose I encounter an “irregular” car on a partly cloudy day? Or I want to see a wider view than what’s visible through my front-mounted, 3.5″ screen? Maybe there’s more to this app that I’m not getting, but holding up or mounting your phone so it can see the cars in front of you sure doesn’t strike me as a safe way to drive.

That leaves non-smartphone AR apps that are designed for driving and that truly augment–rather than unsafely minimize or obstruct–the driver’s view. I’ll be honest; I’ve dreamed for years of having an app like that. A Heads-Up display that operates in true Terminator/Robocop fashion, overlaying helpful directions, GPS data, and other wayfinding tools on the world I see through my windshield in an efficient, minimalist manner. That would be groundbreaking.

So it was with no small measure of excitement that I read about Pioneer Japan’s plan to release what is ostensibly the world’s first in-car, AR navigation system.

These pictures portray (almost) exactly what I’ve wished for. You’ll see “targeting” icons that encircle and identify other vehicles without obstructing them, and direction arrows that appear to hover over the intersection in real time and in three dimensions. Unfortunately, it sounds as if the images will be displayed in a dash-mounted video display, rather than over the driver’s actual point of view. So you still have to take your eyes off the road to look at it. Still, that is no more distracting than the GPS guidance systems already available in many vehicles and smartphones, so it poses no apparent legal difficulty (as long as you don’t groom yourself while looking at it in Troy.)

But what happens when my dream of a truly AR navigation system (projected either through eyewear or an augmented windshield) becomes a reality? Finally, drivers will have access to digital wayfinding data without taking their hands off the wheel or their eyes off the road. But will even that necessarily be safe?

The MIT article gives reason to think that AR eyewear may not be; at least, not for all users, and not if the system is poorly designed. Ubiquitous digital information floating around our field of view is bound to have a range of physiological effects on AR users. For some, it may be no more than a minor contributor to ADD; for others, it may be like watching The Blair Witch Project on a queasy stomach. “Mixing fixed elements into a dynamic real environment could … lead to ‘simulator sickness’ in some users,” the MIT article reports. This “extra load to our visual processing” could simply be too much for some drivers to handle.

According to the study that this article reports on, the fact that digital data in our peripheral vision remains stationary while the world in front of us moves–kind of like the opposite of reading in the car–could be one factor causing these physical reactions. On the other hand, “the eye rapidly ‘accommodates’ to an image at a fixed location on the retina, rendering it invisible. Keeping interface elements visible could require jiggling them subtly, which might lead to further visual confusion as the user’s brain interprets such movement as movement of their real-world surroundings.”

In other words, using AR headsets while driving creates a potential for causing distraction, no matter how the data is projected. This will pose challenges, but that doesn’t mean that clever AR designers won’t find a way to safely enhance the driving experience.

Indeed, as reported by Mashable, at least one auto company is already working on a very promising enhanced vision system that could “improve safety and advance knowledge behind the wheel, visually identifying important objects in physical space like road signs and the edges of the road you’re on in conditions of poor visibility . . . [and] even bring [in] GPS functions . . . by outlining the exact building you’re going to.” Rather than relying on eyewear, this “HUD windshield uses night vision, navigation and camera-based sensors to gather data relevant to your surroundings as you drive, and ultraviolet lasers project corresponding images onto the windshield surface.”

News like that is enough to give hope that AR could be improving our driving experience in a meaningful way soon. Who knows–in the not-too-distant future, AR windshield systems like this might even be required by law, just like seat belts and scores of other safety features are today.

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