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This past March, a few colleagues and I participated in the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin. The most interesting thing that caught my eye at the conference is strongly connected to the recent virtual reality buzz at the Reaktor office. I listened to two different sessions on the transport of the future, where self-driving cars and the related possibilities offered by virtual reality will play a big role.
The first session dealt with the development of Google’s self-driving car and emphasized the safety of automatized transport compared to the possibility of human error associated with human drivers. The routing of Google’s self-driving car is based on Google Street View’s mapping. The second session I visited was one by Mercedes-Benz on the same topic – Mercedes’ concept for the entertainment systems of the self-driving cars of the future and the possibilities they present in the form of the Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept car.
Geolocation is revolutionizing entertainment systems, but a realistic user interface is still lacking
At the beginning of the Street View project, Google’s goal was to map out all the streets of the world and capture every streetscape. As a byproduct, the map project has generated a massive amount of geolocation data, which is now being used to route self-driving cars.
Geolocation also came up during the Mercedes-Benz presentation, with the discussion of a new dimension emerging in the use of AR/VR technology, the connecting of the location of the car at a given time to the area’s history and future. For example, when driving along the streets of Berlin, a user can use the history mode to view the construction of the wall where it used to be. Alternatively, with the future gear engaged, the user can see the most recent visions for the future of each neighborhood.
In this vision, the content of the “entertainment” is connected to the location. This is something I had not seen before and the idea is extremely fascinating: virtual reality can be used to bring people completely new, culturally significant content that is connected to both history and the future, thereby offering a novel, educational perspective.
The system is controlled by motion sensors and hand motions, as well as by touching a virtual user interface. The example worked to a great extent within the confines of the user interface conventions of the physical world. I believe that the concept of user interfaces will also go through a transformation; as the use of VR and AR becomes more popular, user interfaces are refined to suit their different purposes.
Advertising can now target narrower audiences
From a commercial perspective, entertainment content connected to geolocation can also be combined with things such as playing local music and providing area-specific restaurant recommendations. According to Mercedes-Benz, geolocation can also be used to free up space in the environment from advertising.
The operating model can be compared to noise cancelling headphones, but instead of sounds, visual noise can be blocked. It would be interesting to see what the Shibuya or Akihabara areas of Tokyo or New York’s Times Square would look like without a single advertisement or billboard.
Car manufacturers will certainly benefit from the possibilities of VR and AR in the other direction, too. It would be possible to put marketing messages for passengers inside the car as well, such as recommendations that interest the target group of the car in question or other advertising that supports the car’s brand. Targeted marketing and advertising are therefore not at all a bad thing for motorists: for example, the right suggestion for a good restaurant at just the right time brings true added value.
Carefully considered design drives home the message
The design of the Google car with its approachable appearance sends a message of smooth travel. The rounded design may seem clumsy at first, but it is not a random choice: the thought of a self-driving car may seem scary in itself, and Google has responded to this by giving the car a friendly design. The car is designed to integrate smoothly into the rest of traffic, not as a threat, but as a friendly creature that brings a smile on the faces of those who see it.
The design is also a great basis for further exploring the possibilites of augmented reality in car safety. Part of the reason for the roundness of the car is the laser scanner (LIDAR) located on the roof: the round design maximizes its range. The laser scanner measures the distance between objects, in this case other traffic, by lighting observed targets with a laser, which helps the self-driving car to estimate the movements of others on the road and to predict its own. Traffic jams, accidents and other incidents slowing down the drive could be reflected on the inside of the car with the laser scanner and AR.
Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, uses the design of its concept car to communicate a message of luxury and speed. Fitting with this theme, the slogan following the name of the car is “Luxury in Motion”. Mercedes has a strong brand and the concept car supports the image created by the brand, sending out the message of power and being a forerunner. The polished style can also be seen in the decor, which is shown in great detail in the conceptual visualizations, as is typical in the car industry.
I want to believe that in the future, VR/AR will give us much more than the things described in this blog post – both in terms of transport and other areas of life. In addition, I suspect that the practical uses of the technology will be emphasized more in the future, not wanting to downplay the role of entertainment.