It’s apparently now possible to fit a Hummer with some form of infra-red camera mated to a projection display (Engadget, Egopedia). Unusually, this display isn’t projected to overlap the view through the windscreen; it sounds like it’s not a true head-up display, which augments the normal view with the enhanced-contrast infra-red image. Ironically, I suspect this may fix one of the problems with conventional aerospace-derived HUD designs when they’re applied to cars. Let me tell you a story…
A few years ago (2000?), I toddled to the NEC for one of the Tomorrow’s World Live events, a slightly bizarre mix of high-tech trade show and… well, bear in mind that TW was in the depths of naffness at the time, so you can probably work it out. There was some interesting stuff kicking around, however, and I ended up with several items for How2 out of it.
One thing that attracted my interest was a demonstration on the Jaguar stand. They had an XJ rigged up with a full-on military-style holographic projection HUD, neatly mounted in the roof head lining. The system was, I was told, essentially ripped out of a Harrier jet, most of the work involved being in integrating it with the car in a neat fashion. You can bolt things to a military jet, but Jaguar owners demand that they be fitted, I suppose. This was a prototype, but the PR flack proudly proclaimed that it was intended for full-on production ‘within two years.’
The demonstration involved climbing into the car and gazing at a huge (and impressive) projection TV showing a recording of a night-time drive down twisting country lanes. You lined up the HUD to your seating position, and a switch allowed you to turn the infra red view on and off at will. The difference was spectacular. Night vision systems are a little grainy, but that nonsense you see in the movies? They’re actually not that dissimilar in practice. The really clever thing is the holographic technique that allows the projected image to hang far enough away that you don’t have to shift focus, since it appears to be overlaid on the world outside in all three dimensions. Very clever, and very effective.
But one thing troubled me. The HUD screen was large, as HUDs go, but still small compared to the car windscreen. It amply covered the road ahead, but peripheral vision was outside its limits. I knew that situational awareness for jet pilots was an issue when using fixed IR devices, and I mentioned that the headlight beam spread was much wider than the area covered by the HUD.
The PR flack shifted uncomfortably, which was odd, so I continued the train of thought. What effect does enhancing the central field of view have on one’s attention to peripheral vision? By offering a better view of the road, does the driver end up paying less attention to the roadside? Literally ‘out of sight, out of mind’? More squirming from the PR flack.
With impeccable timing a lone pedestrian wandered into view at the side of the road. Completely unseen by the HUD system, he popped into my awareness roughly a dozen metres away. Instinctively I flicked the wheel and tried to steer away, which was stupid on several fronts. Firstly because I was watching a pre-recorded movie in a stationary car, and secondly because the car was going to miss him anyway, and swerving like that could easily have steered me into the path of an oncoming vehicle.
I looked at the PR flack. ‘How well has this system been tested? And not technically, I mean for human factors? Can you demonstrate that it actually makes night driving any safer?’
At which point, I was asked to leave the stand. Incredulous, I pressed the question, only for two very large security guards to show up. The request to leave was repeated, politely but very firmly. I was clearly no longer welcome at the Jaguar stand. The PR flack refused to even give me his name, but I like to think that this was the last bad decision he made in that job.
You see, I was at the show on a press pass. So I toddled off to the media centre and snagged the Jaguar release covering the HUD system. Lots of proud mention of how it was going to be available in XJs in a year or two, and of how thoroughly tested it was, but no mention of human factors at all. It looked like they simply hadn’t done their homework.
At which point, I spied a chap from the Telegraph who I vaguely knew via New Scientist bashes at British Association meetings. I showed him the release, and told him my tale. ‘Bloody hell!’ he exclaimed, as he ran to the Jaguar stand to see for himself.
I never did find out if he ran the story, but Jaguar never delivered the system. Cadillac, apparently, do offer something similar – I wonder how well-tested it is?