Steampunk enthusiasts and Morgan owners aside, driving goggles are a thing of the past, rendered obsolete by the advent of the windshield. Yet Mini sees a bright future in which we all wear goggles … as head-up displays.
The once-British brand, now owned by BMW, says its customers value style and performance above all, which makes us wonder if it really thinks people will embrace augmented reality goggles. Nevertheless, Mini believes such eyewear is the best way of populating the driver’s field of vision with helpful information.
And here’s the thing: It actually works pretty well.
The latest Mini hardtop comes with camera-based active safety features like pedestrian detection and collision avoidance (automatically applying the brakes if necessary). It’s also got a head-up display that projects information like speed and navigation directions onto the windshield. HUDs are a common and popular feature on luxury cars these days, one Mini wants to take off the windshield and put right in front of its customers’ eyeballs.
About 18 months ago, BMW turned to Qualcomm for help. The key was providing the ability to display content that aligns with and is anchored to things in the real world, as your head moves. I gave the goggles a try before their debut at the Shanghai auto show this week, and was impressed by how seamlessly they added a digital layer to whatever I was looking at.
To do that, it was crucial to minimize the motion-to-photon latency: the time it takes the system to see something, process it, and add graphics. That will never be eliminated—it will always take some amount of time to achieve that—so Qualcomm reduces it by predicting how your head will move, using cameras an inertial sensors. As the system develops, Qualcomm VP of connected experiences Jay Wright says, it edges closer to “effective zero latency.” In other words, “perception is reality.”
The goggles were drawn up by Design Works USA, a BMW-owned firm based in Southern California. Aviator-style, polycarbonate lenses sit over downward-facing 720p displays. A printed circuit board runs across the top of the unit. A forward-facing camera sits between the lenses, and an infrared camera on top is used for tracking exactly where the goggles are, by following the headliner. The nose bridge is adjustable, and you can use them with prescription lenses.
Because the temples aren’t flexible on this prototype, I was told to put them on like a hat: Putting the nosepiece on my nose, then sliding the temples down over my head. They’re snug and a bit heavy, but not uncomfortable. After a two-minute tutorial to learn the UI (there’s only one button, which doubles as a track pad) and calibrating them for my face, I was ready to see the future.
The goggles aren’t the goofiest thing on the planet, but I’d need a major boost in self-confidence before plopping them on my head and driving around town.
To start, the Mini engineer told me to check out a poster advertising a concert. The goggles picked out the address and asked me if that’s where I wanted to go. Sure, I said, by pressing the button. The navi told me to get in the the car, and off we went.
This is where I clarify that the demo occurred in a small room in a San Francisco Mini dealership. The car was set up in front of a screen displaying the “world” around it, but how the goggles work was clear.
As I moved my head and adjusted my seating position, the speed I was “traveling” remained within my field of view. Instead of through my phone or the console screen, directions popped up on the road, with arrows making it perfectly clear where to go. These are the features I love having in a head-up display, taken beyond the bottom left corner of the windshield.
The goggles offer one especially impressive feature: X-ray vision. Well, of a sort. When you look at the doors, the goggles pipe in video from a camera outside the car, allowing you to effectively look through the metal. You can see how close you are to the curb, and spot that little kid in the driveway behind you.
The system’s not perfect, and I noticed some lag on the visual effects whenever I moved my head quickly. Still, it’s an impressive vision of how augmented reality can improve the driving experience (until it’s used to display ads, anyway). This is a prototype, but, Wright says, it could be ready for production within months. “Technology-wise, we’re very close.”
I’m impressed by how well the tech works, and by Mini’s innovative approach to something every automaker is, or should be, thinking about: How to safely and competently integrate the huge amount of digital information on hand, into our cars.
But I’m not sure about the look. The goggles aren’t the goofiest thing on the planet, but I’d need a major boost in self-confidence before plopping them on my head and driving around town. And probably a leather jacket, cooler hair, and a beard. Oh, and seriously tinted windows. I’d like to see a version that looks more like regular, less noticeable glasses. Or how about an ego-massaging software tweak that replaces bystanders’ giggles with approving nods?