Most of what we hear about next-generation automotive technology these days has to do with self-driving cars, zero-emission technology, and the like. But Mini (and its parent company, BMW) are betting that the future of driving will include goofy-looking goggles that you wear while behind the wheel.
On Monday evening, I headed to the Mini dealership in San Francisco to test the company's new augmented-reality goggles. The goggles looked like oversized aviator sunglasses with a sliver of the shades missing. They looked better than Google Glass, but they still weren't particularly stylish, and they were heavier than normal glasses. This pair was wi-fi enabled and came equipped with a graphics processor, a tiny one-finger control trackpad on the right side of the frame, and a camera.
When I donned the goggles, I suddenly could see semi-translucent images superimposed on the physical world around me. (A poster of a faux concert, for instance, was overlaid with virtual sign telling me that tickets were sold out.) I stepped into a red Mini Cooper S, which was parked in front of a flat-screen display as a demo station, and began to "drive." I found myself traveling through the streets of a make-believe city. It felt like playing an uber-tame version of Grand Theft Auto. As I pretended to drive, semi-transparent images appeared over the scene. My speed was displayed in a blue circle at the bottom center of my sight line. As I passed buildings, the goggles displayed facts about them.
Almost instantly, I started feeling a bit queasy. I wasn't the only one. Video game industry analyst Ted Pollack, another guest at the event, had the same reaction. Motion sickness is a big problem virtual- and augmented-reality companies are trying to fix. (One recent study, for instance, suggests that building in a virtual nose helps.)
The Mini goggles are powered by Vuphoria computer vision software developed by sensor and chip manufacturer Qualcomm. The glasses, which may be paired to your phone in the future, can also read incoming text messages. When you get a text, a little circular icon appears in your line of vision. Simply tap an OK button on the steering wheel—which is how you control the eyewear when you're in the car—and the content of the message is read to you out loud. It's a cool feature, meant to help cut down on texting while driving, but it's still pretty distracting. And while you can have your texts read to you, there's no way to respond yet, which limits its usefulness.
The best feature in the Mini goggles was a kind of virtual X-ray vision. Thanks to cameras placed on the side rearview mirrors and front wheels of the demo car, you could turn your head while wearing the goggles and see what was happening outside the vehicle. For instance, as I was trying to "park" the Mini in the simulator, the goggles showed me how far I was from the curb. (Lots of cars already have rear-bumper camera displays, of course, but the goggles made it easier to see exactly how far away I was.)
The Mini goggles aren't ready for primetime yet. They're still a prototype, and they haven't even been tested in a real car on an experimental track yet, though that should be happening in the next couple of months, according to Robert Richter, an advanced technology engineer with the BMW Group. But the company is clearly excited. "It's this seamless integration of the whole driving experience," Roy Ashok, the product manager for Qualcomm's Vuforia augmented reality platform, told me. "That's what makes this safe and less distracting."
I'm not so sure about that. After all, getting nauseated when you're playing a game is annoying, but behind the wheel, it could be downright dangerous. And while the Mini goggles' information overlays weren't too distracting, I also was driving down the simulated version of a wide-open road. On a crowded highway, in rush hour—or in a busy city like New York—that added layer of visual stimulation might have been too much to handle.
One consideration BMW will have to grapple with is the legality of using augmented reality headwear on the road. Several states in the U.S. have already tried to ban or restrict the use of Google Glass, the search giant's augmented reality wearable. None have been passed, and whether they're even enforceable is still up for debate. But even if there aren't laws on the books dictating their use, manufacturers could still be liable if their virtual objects obstruct a sign or startle to you, causing an accident, according to legal experts.
As I walked out of the event, I kept thinking to myself: even if it were legal, who would actually buy and use a pair of augmented-reality driving goggles? Given that driver distraction is the cause of roughly one in five vehicular fatalities, do we really need more information in front of our faces while we drive, rather than less? Augmented-reality goggles might be a cool idea when we have self-driving cars controlling the steering wheel for us; until then, it's probably best to keep our eyes un-augmented and on the road.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.