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Automakers, suppliers and startups see growing market for in-vehicle AR/VR applications

‘There’s a whole new paradigm of what the car is’

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Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Augmented and virtual reality have been used for years in gaming, design and shopping. Now, a new battle for market share is emerging — inside vehicles.

Safety-glass windshields offer a new opportunity for suppliers, manufacturers and startups that are starting to adapt this technology: AR overlays digital information or images on what a user sees in the real world, while VR creates a seemingly real experience that changes as they move through it.

The potential for monetizing AR/VR is hamstrung by a number of factors: The long, expensive timelines required to develop, tool and test an automotive-grade product has constrained development to a small subset of startups and several large suppliers.

Despite all of the pomp and promises about the technology’s potential, there isn’t a clear understanding of market demand for bringing AR and VR to cars, trucks and passenger vans. Estimates of the global market range from $14 billion by 2027 to as much as $673 billion by 2025. That wide range shows just how nascent the market currently is and how much opportunity is present.

“At the vehicle manufacturer level, companies are witnessing a complete shift of emphasis of what their product offering is, to the user. Because of that change of emphasis, there’s a whole new paradigm of what the car is,” said Andy Travers, the CEO of Ceres, a Scottish company that specializes in creating holographic glass for AR applications. “There is a huge interest in AR and transparent displays because a car is no longer really differentiated by its engine size, especially as we get into electric vehicles. They are going to be identical skateboards. The question then becomes, how do you differentiate an electric car? You push it toward the user experience.”

It’s no surprise that the implementation of automotive AR (and in limited situations, VR) has been and will continue to be slow. It will largely lag the wider AR and VR market for a number of reasons. Vehicle systems — especially those using computing power and technology needed for AR and VR — must be robust enough to handle tremendous temperature swings, rough jostling and impacts over anywhere from three to 10 years, even if Tesla says that “it is economically, if not technologically, infeasible to expect that such components can or should be designed to last the vehicle’s entire useful life.”

These systems have to be nearly indestructible in extreme conditions for a very long period of time. They must also be compact and power-efficient, especially as electric vehicles become more prevalent. You don’t want your AR or VR system draining your battery and leaving you stranded.

As an example of just how much the automotive technology landscape differs from the consumer realm, consider how long it took for touchscreens to show up in vehicle cockpits. While Buick offered a rudimentary touchscreen in its 1986 Riviera, it was not the easy-to-use interface we’re used to today thanks to the advent of the iPhone.

This is partially due to the three- to seven-year iteration cycles most vehicle makers are on and because the technology simply wasn’t familiar enough to the consumer market to make widespread adoption profitable. In their current form, AR and VR have seen a far more successful uptake rate in industrial usage and application, in part because the technology is still so pricey.

It would be a mistake to exclude a discussion about the development of autonomous driving in this AR and VR conversation, too. The technology is instrumental in the development of fully autonomous vehicles, and while there are no full-autonomous vehicles on the road today, automakers are pushing to make them more than just vaporware.

The players

Many well-established brands like Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen already offer a suite of AR features in their top-end vehicles. Automotive suppliers like Continental, Denso, Visteon, ZF, Nvidia, Bosch, Panasonic and others are the biggest players in the AR and VR automotive space, supplying and making head-up displays (HUDs) and related components for a variety of established automakers.

Most of the AR features in these vehicles are focused on overlaying directional guides over camera images to help drivers navigate in unfamiliar territories or identify a particular building or landmark. Virtual reality, thus far, has been largely applied to the design, sales, demonstration and education of consumers about new technology and features in vehicles, although companies like Audi spinoff Holoride are working to offer passengers VR experiences that can help cut down on in-car motion sickness while simultaneously offering gaming, entertainment or business applications. Even ride-hailing companies are getting in on the AR and VR game, with Lyft and Uber exploring AR and VR options for riders.

There are some startups creeping in to capture market share as well, such as Ceres, which makes special holographic glass, and Envisics, a U.K.-based startup that specializes in creating 3D holographic HUDs. In January, Envisics reached an agreement with Panasonic Automotive Systems to jointly develop and commercialize a new generation of HUDs for cars, trucks and SUVs. Envisics’ tech is supposed to be integrated into the upcoming Cadillac Lyriq electric vehicle.

There’s also WayRay, which counts Alibaba, Porsche and others as investors. WayRay’s technology is not in production cars. Porsche told TechCrunch that it is working with the startup on several development projects because it is convinced by its technology for AR HUDs in Porsche sports cars. However, Porsche added there is no plan in the near future for integration into its production models.

Who’s investing

The top investors include the usual automotive suspects: GM Ventures, Hyundai Mobis, SAIC Motor, BMW iVentures, M&A Tech Invest (Daimler), Porsche and Honda Strategic Venturing are among those interested in AR and VR applications in vehicles.

There aren’t many independent VCs in the space, largely because of the tremendous barrier to entry in the automotive industry. While there are a plethora of VCs investing in VR and AR for the automotive shopping experience, as well as autonomous driving technology, there aren’t many independently investing companies developing the technology for in-cabin AR and VR experiences for drivers and passengers. That space is largely occupied by the large OEMs.

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The future of AR in cars

Companies like Mercedes are already beginning to roll out 3D displays in top-tier vehicles that offer everything from animated lane guides to real-time navigation cues that show a final destination. Others, like Audi, have showcased concepts like an adjustable HUD that can be raised and lowered to create a larger or smaller viewing space.

While there are plenty of animations on the internet showing a fully immersive in-car AR experience where drivers can view both the external world and an AR display simultaneously from all positions, that technology does not exist — and according to Travers at Ceres, it never will.

“You simply can’t change the laws of physics,” Travers said.

In-car virtual reality will continue to be constrained to passenger use only if fully autonomous (Level 5) vehicles are on the road. It will, however, continue to see growth in the car shopping and buying experience. It may also see more use in industrial settings, where technicians use it for training and troubleshooting and designers use it to create the next new vehicle.

AR, on the other hand, is already being deployed in consumer vehicles.

In the near term, the future of in-vehicle AR is going three-dimensional, user-customizable and will work hard to capture the attention of the driver without being a distraction. One of the aims of AR technology is to make it more customizable than it is today.

Current iterations are limited by display technology, power draw and projector surface (usually special glass or glass overlay). Balancing the demands of real-world driving while minimizing driver distraction is a delicate dance, so new solutions are needed. Larger displays that allow users to change the data displayed or customize layouts the way we customize phone screens are the likely near future for AR.

Once in-car AR experiences are normalized, it’s easy enough to see how they may be leveraged by in-display advertising.

“It becomes a question of who owns the driver,” Travers said. Imagine you’re on a road trip and drive past a hotel advertising a special rate for an overnight stay or a restaurant offering today’s special. You could conceivably pull up reviews or details and order or book a stay directly through your car. As Travers notes, that could be big business for a variety of players, including automakers — if they can monetize such use and still keep in-cabin distractions to a minimum.

In-vehicle innovations in AR and VR are going to be largely driven by consumer demands and expectations, much like in-vehicle smartphone connectivity.

Until then, we’ll continue to see large manufacturers investing in — and even acquiring — smaller companies that handle highly specialized portions of AR and VR systems and experiences such as screens/windshields, computing units, GPS units, projectors, human monitoring systems and content. While it’s not likely that we’ll be driving around wearing VR headsets anytime soon, in-car AR is already changing the way we travel and it promises to continue to evolve.

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