Since the dawn of driving, there's been an annoying constant: sun glare. Early motorists squinted and used gloved hands to block the sun's blinding rays, at least until around 95 years ago, when some genius came up with the first sun visor. Almost a century later, modern cars are orders of magnitude more complex and capable, yet we still use that basic primitive board-on-a-hinge invention to avoid being blinded by the light. German supplier Bosch's Virtual Visor may just be the high-tech solution that modern drivers need to cut through the glare.
Debuting at CES this week, the Bosch Virtual Visor features a transparent LCD screen paired with a small in-cabin RGB camera used to track the sun shining on the driver's face. The system employs artificial intelligence to locate facial features (including eyes, mouth and nose) in order to track shadows as they move across the driver's face. A patented algorithm is then used to pinpoint where the driver's eyes are and selectively block and unblock (darken) sections of the Virtual Visor in real time to prevent blindness. The key benefit? 90% of the visor remains transparent at all times, so the driver can still see out far more effectively than she or he otherwise would with a conventional fabric-covered visor.
Beyond being uncomfortable, sun glare is a major safety issue: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says temporary blindness is a contributing factor in over twice as many car accidents as other weather-related phenomenon, including rain, fog and snow. Plus, fiddling with sun visors means that you have to take your hands off the wheel, however momentarily. In other words, finding a remedy to this issue could dramatically increase vehicle safety.
I had a chance to try out an early mockup of Virtual Visor at Bosch's labs in Plymouth, Michigan, ahead of its Las Vegas debut, and while this tech is obviously in its infancy, the promise of such a device is quite literally clear. Well, almost entirely transparent, at any rate -- this early Virtual Visor prototype features a honeycomb-like large-pixel framework that you can see even when the screen isn't blocking anything, and there's still a substantial tint to the transparent element, though neither are particularly bothersome.
The test rig I experienced was not in a car, it was in a lab where I was seated at a conventional chair and the camera in question was an old Logitech video-conference laptop camera. As I was in a lab, a flashlight on a tripod was used to simulate the sun. After a brief calibration period, I was able to move my head around and watch the Virtual Visor block glare in real time. You can see how this works in the video above. To be clear, the system wasn't perfect in its tracking -- if I moved too far away or at too obtuse of an angle, there were moments where it could fall behind and allow in light. However, this is a very early setup -- barely even a prototype, and substantial improvements are pledged. While Bosch won't quote an availability time frame, they admit they're already in discussions with at least one automaker and a commercial truck manufacturer about production, which is likely still a few years away.
The beauty of this system is that it's surprisingly simple, requires little power, and it's being developed with an eye toward leveraging much of the hardware already found in modern cars. For instance, as more and more vehicles are featuring higher degrees of driving automation, driver-facing cameras (driver monitors) are poised to become commonplace, and Bosch is confident such hardware can be used as part of the Virtual Visor system, too. Such multipurposing will not only curb complexity, it'll help cut cost and limit vehicle weight gain. As Jason Zink, one of the the Virtual Visor's engineers says, "This system is expanding the value ecosystem of driver monitoring. If you have the camera in the vehicle already, there's already computational power in the car. Adding this as a function is basically adding the visor and the software."
Interestingly, this tech essentially started life as an off-the-books passion project at Bosch, one of the world's biggest auto industry suppliers. A company engineer, Ryan Todd, had an "aha moment" back in 2016 while he was driving and daydreaming about buying a new TV. Having an engineer's mind, this brought him to think about how the LEDs in modern TVs work, and Todd wondered why the tech couldn't be applied to automotive sun visors.
Despite being a powertrain controls engineer from a completely different department with no computer vision or display experience, Todd floated his idea at a weekly meeting. A few colleagues, including Zink, took an interest. Parts were scavenged out of old monitors and an Arduino project board was sourced for a proof-of-concept model developed after hours. A mockup was then shown to decision-makers who gave this smart visor idea a small development budget. In 2019, Todd and Zinc began working on the project full time, and today, that project has blossomed into Virtual Visor.
If you're like me, you might initially wonder why this technology is being developed in a separate visor instead of being directly integrated into a car or truck's windshield. Aside from greater cost and the likelihood of needing replacement glass owing to rock strikes, if Virtual Visor fails, the entire display goes dark. The worst that can happen is that Bosch's visor goes 'dumb' and becomes a conventional unit that can still be swung out of the driver's view. Put that same tech in a windshield, however, and the safety prospects get a lot dicier.
Any downsides? Well, assuming the technology can be improved to the point where it works reliably for drivers of all dimensions and seating positions, there's still the question of making Virtual Visor affordable enough to produce. Also, a lot of drivers really like having vanity mirrors and makeup lighting, the inclusion of which would necessitate the fitment of a secondary inner flap.
It's also not clear whether a second visor would be needed to block sun through the side windows, although it seems reasonable that a clever hinge design could allow for the Virtual Visor to automatically go fully opaque automatically when unclipped on one side and swung outward to block sun streaming in the side window.
Zink says the system even works with polarized sunglasses, albeit potentially with a slight performance degradation. If you can see a normal LCD infotainment system with your sunglasses on, the Virtual Visor will work.
A lot of work remains to be done before you can expect to see the Virtual Visor in cars at dealerships or helping big-rig commercial truckers do their job out on the interstate. Components need to be further miniaturized, software code needs to be refined, and compatibility with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards has to be established. But the fact that Bosch is already in talks with both truck and car manufacturers suggests that this is far from pie-in-the-sky tech. There's a light at the end of this tech's development tunnel, and with Virtual Visor, you won't have to squint to see it.