Spotlight: Taking Mercedes AR-enabled Car for a Test Drive

The automotive industry has always been a great early adopter of mobile technology, and Augmented Reality is no exception. Volkswagen, BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz are all present here at Metaios InsideAR event, with plenty of demo cars on the show floor – and in the case of Mercedes, on the road too.

I took a quick test drive around Munich – sadly, as a passenger – in one of its R-Class models equipped with in-car AR technology from its R&D department.

According to Mercedes-Benz manager of HMI architecture and instrument cluster Markus Hammori, speaking at the event yesterday, there are four use cases of AR technology for the automotive industry: entertainment; navigation; road info; and what he called confidence, a way of monitoring automated cars.

Taking a test drive

The ride I took covered the first three of these – no driverless cars here – with touchscreens embedded in the dashboard and backs of seats, similar to the entertainment systems you see in current cars, but linked to a camera on the front of the car. 

This video feed was then overlaid with a variety of content, depending on the seat. The front screen delivered navigation and road info, with large virtual chevrons superimposed onto the road pointing the way to the chosen destination, changing colour to warn the driver of any nearby hazards, along with floating speed limit and road signs. In the back seat, the focus was on entertainment, with local info in the form of wikipedia articles and panoramic images of local landmarks, nearby tweets and the occasional geocaching game.

As is so often the case with AR, its easy to compare this to the concepts offered up in sci-fi films and be a little disappointed – in particular, with the use of screens rather than a full HUD (Heads Up Display) on the windscreen itself.

The reason is that the technology to do this just isnt there yet. According to Hammori, the hardware required to achieve a full-windscreen projection would be so large they wouldnt be able to fit both it and the driver in the car. Currently, the biggest HUD you can realistically achieve is around postcard size – much too small for the kind of info being presented.

Mercedes-Benz says that theres no technology on the horizon which promises to change this, at least for the next few years. Itd be interesting to see where that fits with what Vuzix told me yesterday about their forthcoming optical technology, and its worth noting that weve seen considerable advancements in the last few years, with these systems originally requiring much bulkier equipment.

Keeping it real

Whats most important, though, is that this isnt just an impressive concept, but something which theyre able to demonstrate working in a real environment. 

“Concept videos and simulations always tend towards the best case scenario,” says Hammori, pointing to Toyotas Window to the World prototype for interactive AR side windows, enabling passengers to touch the scenery and learn more about it (you can watch a video here).

Its a really impressive idea, but when Mercedes-Benz tested it out in cars on the road, it quickly became apparent that in the real world theres often nothing to look at, or there are trees and cars blocking the view, or the car is simply moving too fast.

“All you end up with,” Hammori says, “is motion sickness.”