Picture the scene. I want to buy a new car, so I put on a headset and from the comfort of our living room take a model for a test drive. I even get to experience the smell of new leather seats, admire its sleek interior and hear the gentle hum of the electric engine. It feels very real. Satisfied, I click buy and, the next day, on my drive, there it is.
Jaguar Land Rover offered us a glimpse into this future when it used virtual reality (VR) to present its first electric car, the I-Pace. Some journalists in attendance at the press event commented that the company had transformed the concept of the product launch.
But while VR is set to be huge, worth as much as $80 billion by 2025, it’s not there yet. And meanwhile its sister technology, augmented reality (AR), is being used to improve mobility right now.
Through the looking glass
As reported by MIT Technology Review, mechanics working for the rail system in Boston, US, have been using AR glasses since the middle of last year so they can communicate effectively with expert technicians at its maintenance facility. The aim is to speed up repairs and reduce disruptions to services by, for instance, eliminating the need to return trains to the facility whenever malfunctions occur.
“AR comes in handy for many professionals from mechanics to pilots to surgeons, and it provides opportunities to improve user experience in a variety of fields, particularly commuting,” says Tobias Gemperli from Taktil, the Swiss design agency behind award-winning AR app Departures.
Departures enables commuters … to access public transport timetables and check for delays and platform changes by simply holding their iPhone in the direction of the desired station or stop
Departures enables commuters across Switzerland – as well as in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area – to access public transport timetables and check for delays and platform changes by simply holding their iPhone in the direction of the desired station or stop.
For the average commuter constantly on the move, pausing to check travel updates, load web pages and fill out text fields can be infuriating. Push notifications are helpful to a degree but still might require further action.
“With AR the commuter can retrieve real-time information with minimal interaction effort. They can use the [Departures] app while walking and even without taking their gloves off,” says Gemperli. “Finding departure times without typing or pressing any buttons is natural and seamless.”
Taktil has recognised the broad appeal of the technology and is working on a software development kit to empower developers to integrate location-based AR into their iOS and Android apps.
In Chennai, India, iCommute harnesses people power to crowdsource data on public transport routes and facilities. Within the last few months, its team has been beta testing an AR feature, which it hopes will make accessing the information for its 5,000 regular users easier. Like Departures, the commuter just needs to hold their phone in a certain direction.
“AR can help to democratise information,” says co-founder KM Revanth. “In a bustling city, finding directions, exit gates or rest rooms can be confusing. Some bus stops don’t have shelters or signage either, so a person may find it difficult to locate where they can get on and when.
Users are able to find nearby points of interest without having to spend time searching and scrolling on their phone
“Our AR feature overlays virtual bus stops and timetables onto the real world. Users are able to find nearby points of interest without having to spend time searching and scrolling on their phone.”
Welcomed but not without risks
As urban environments continue to grow, the demand for smart mobility will only increase. And any technology that simplifies the process of getting from A to B will be welcomed.
Augmented reality has the potential to be truly transformative when it comes to helping people get about smoothly
There is a caveat. Tech startups have brought AR to windscreens in the form of heads-up displays. They can project information to alert drivers to accidents and even aid them in foggy and snowy conditions. However, some are concerned that they actually reduce safety. Academics at the University of Toronto found that presenting drivers with too much information in their visual field impacted on their attention to detail.
If such issues can be addressed then augmented reality has the potential to be truly transformative when it comes to helping people get about smoothly.
How we see the commute will no longer be the same.