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Can projecting texts and playlists on your car's windshield make you a safer driver?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 26, 2011 11:30 AM

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Fighter pilots have used heads-up displays, or HUDs, for more than fifty years to project information onto the windshield of a plane, so that they don't have to glance down at their instruments in the middle of a dogfight.

But could the same technology make commuting to work safer? Michael Amaru, a Hamilton entrepreneur and graphic designer, thinks so. And he has designed a prototype heads-up display that would work with any vehicle; with sufficient funding, he hopes to shift into production soon.

Here's the premise: even though texting while driving is illegal in Massachusetts, many of us still fumble with our phones to play music, navigate our way to an unfamiliar address, or read an urgent incoming text while at a stoplight (or not). All that would be much safer, Amaru says, if you could see the information without taking your eyes off the road, or your hands off the wheel.

His SmartHUD prototype includes a plastic mount that clips onto one of your air conditioning vents, and a MicroVision "pico projector" the size of a deck of cards, which uses a laser to splash an image onto your windshield. There's also a piece of see-through film that goes on the windshield to improve the brightness of the image, and a slot into which you can slip your Android mobile phone. Strapped to your steering wheel is a tiny touchpad, which lets you use a thumb to make selections on SmartHUD's simplified interface — like answering "yes" or "no" to an incoming next message, or choosing a song from your music library. (The two components are pictured at left.) Amaru is hopeful that in sufficient volume, the SmartHUD system could be sold for around $200.

HUD--10.jpgSmartHUD wouldn't let you use any app on your phone — no playing Angry Birds while racing north on I-93, for instance — but rather it would let you hear incoming texts read aloud, select songs, use a GPS app, and make calls. "I think this will be a safer way to integrate the smartphone into a car," Amaru says, "since you're not holding it, or typing on it, or looking down to try to manipulate a Google map that shows you where you're going." (Amaru's demo of the smartphone software, in the works for the past seven months, is currently just a proof-of-concept slideshow, rather than a fully-built app.)

Two open questions:

1. Can a heads-up system like SmartHUD improve driver safety?
2. Will consumers adopt it, or will they prefer speech-driven systems like Apple's Siri, Vlingo's Virtual Assistant, or Nuance's Dragon apps for use in the car?

Amaru says he has invested about $8000 in developing the prototype while also working his day job; he's now hoping that additional funding will free him up to "hyper-focus" on the project.

The pictures below show what the SmartHUD prototype looks like from inside the vehicle and out.

What do you think — are you a potential user?



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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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