MINI giving drivers a peek at 'augmented reality'

April 20, 2015 // By Junko Yoshida
Although most drivers have yet to embrace the idea of head-up displays (HUDs) on windshields, MINI is leapfrogging to the next phase of futuristic motoring, with its unveiling this week of augmented reality (AR) eyewear — powered by Qualcomm.

MINI is offering live demonstrations of its prototype technology both at the Auto Shanghai Show and in San Francisco.

MINI is seeking to fuse HUD and AR directly onto the drivers’ vision through AR glasses. Navigation instructions or any other digital information the driver might need will be overlaid directly in the lenses of the driver’s eyewear.

To be clear, MINI’s Augmented Vision is still a research project. During an interview with EE Times, an executive at the BMW Group Technology Office wasn’t willing to predict when the prototype glasses might become products in the commercial market.

Nonetheless, the vision of “connectivity between MINI vehicles and augmented reality glasses” illustrated by MINI (owned by BMW) and Qualcomm offers a glimpse of a future to which AR and connected cars are heading, if not colliding.

X-Ray view
HUD function in AR glasses should be effective and useful if they work. They can project vehicle speed, speed limits and similar relevant information in the driver’s primary field of vision. Beyond such functions, an intriguing feature of MINI Augmented Vision is what MINI calls “X-Ray view” — enabled by the combination of see-through display and positional tracking technologies.

When a driver turns his or her head, for example, the glasses provide a view through the sheet metal in the car’s door, revealing objects that would be otherwise out of sight — like a child in the street, or a dog, according to Jay Wright, vice president, Qualcomm Vuforia.

MINI Augmented Vision offers X-Ray vision.
MINI Augmented Vision offers X-Ray vision.

“The cameras mounted on the outside of the vehicle capture live images and project them into the glasses in the right context and the correct place by using the Qualcomm Vuforia mobile vision platform,” Wright explained. Qualcomm Vuforia offers Augmented Reality SDK for developers to create AR applications.

But how exactly are live images captured by the cameras that transmit to the driver’s AR glasses?

Robert Richter, senior advanced technology engineer, BMW Group Technology, explained, “For this research prototype, we use a Wi-Fi connection that connects with the head unit and additional computing units for processing the video signals. We have added two additional cameras [to MINI] to enable the X-Ray Vision and the seeing the curb while parking.”

Such a scenario, however, makes Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst & manager, Infotainment & HMI, IHS Automotive, wonder about connectivity.

“Since the display is head-mounted and is not connected [or] powered by the vehicle, you must have a VERY robust wireless connection for data transfer and a reliable and powerful battery to keep the glasses powered, even on long road trips,” the analyst said.

“Assuming the exterior camera and the HMD (head-mounted device) have a rich enough data bandwidth,” Boyadijis said, “then you could make things like an A-pillar of a vehicle or a hood of a large SUV – virtually – transparent.” However, he warned, “This will be VERY expensive to achieve in today’s world, not to mention VERY complex to ‘perfect’ and ensure a seamless user experience.”

HMD for cars
MINI isn’t jumping on the AR/HUD bandwagon just because of the growing popularity of AR/VR in recent years. BMW has been working for more than a decade on the idea of bringing HUD to goggles – like those worn by an aviator, according to Pat McKenna, manager of product planning & events, MINI USA. AR glasses are an evolution of that idea. Instead of a combiner HU display on the windshield, AR glasses can bring a far wider field of view.