Cool Glasses! Cool Glasses! Mini Says Augmented Reality Is the Infotainment Future
There’s much hemming and hawing in automaker and supplier circles about the future of infotainment. Proof of that is the unending stream of press releases we receive from app developers, OEMs, mobile carriers, aspiring technology consultants, and various conferences all relating to in-cabin technology. But the fact of the matter is, unless it works easily, intuitively, and consistently on the go, it’s next to worthless to you as a driver. Despite the premium pricing of its products, Mini has historically lagged in the segment, until recently relying on a woefully inferior interface derived from parent BMW’s iDrive system.
Now Mini is hoping to leap ahead with the aid of a prototype augmented-reality system unveiled today at the Shanghai auto show. Last week, the company invited us to San Francisco for a demonstration.
Undeterred by the cratering of Google’s Glass project and bullish on the future of face-mounted wearables, Mini’s Augmented Vision relies on a pair of glasses that turn the wearer into a caricature of an Elvis/Bono hybrid—as if that particular mix weren’t caricature enough. Stand in front of a wall-mounted sign, and by moving one’s head just so, closing one eye, then the other, and taking steps forward and back, the glasses’ 720p stereoscopic screens should be aligned and primed to deliver a seamless AR experience.Mini had three pairs of glasses to choose from, in various color combos. We chose the pair that made us look the most Dangeresque. Once we had them configured, BMW had us eye a couple of posters. The system asked us if we wanted to attend the event that wasn’t sold out. Upon answering in the affirmative, we were presented with the time to walk to our vehicle, the drive time to a parking spot, and finally, the time it would take to walk to our final destination from the car.
All well and good, pretty sci-fi, and rather useful. Then we got in the car, the screen in front of us began moving, driving directions appeared, and we instinctively tilted our head back slightly to get our eyes up and on the road. At which point the bottom half of the display was cut off. An ironic flaw given that Mini’s parent company also builds motorcycles.
During our simulated drive, we received a simulated text from a simulated friend. A punch of the steering-wheel-mounted “OK” button confirmed that we were interested in listening to it. Simple, effective, and easy. Meanwhile, the bulky glasses were already starting to weigh rather heavily on our skull.
When we asked about regulatory issues, noting that people had been cited for wearing Google Glass while driving, Mini’s reps shrugged it off and suggested that as an automaker, regulatory quagmires were one of their core competencies and that they’ll sell it on the safety benefits.
While some of the AR stuff is legitimately of use, we feel that adding car-specific glasses to an infotainment system adds another failure point in the chain. The potential benefits of AR in keeping the driver’s eyes on the road ahead are very real, but our gut sense is that it won’t find mass acceptance until smart glasses become nearly as entrenched in our daily lives the way our smartphones have. In the interim, we’d be pleased if Mini saw fit to plug the X-Ray view system into the dash-mounted screen.
First published on blog.caranddriver.com.