Mini's Augmented Vision concept puts navigation, safety in your glasses

The carmaker shows off a concept augmented reality system based on a pair of high-tech glasses that give you information about the real world plus navigation and safety views.

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Street signs and posters fill our urban environments but don't always tell us what we need to know. A funny set of high-tech goggles from Mini attempts to fill in the gaps, not only in your car, but on the road.

The BMW-owned carmaker introduced its Mini Augmented Vision technology as a concept at the Shanghai auto show, but it also gave me a demonstration in San Francisco. A pair of bug-eye glasses, containing Qualcomm's Snapdragon CPU, make up the hardware heart of the system.

The glasses project imagery on the lenses in front of the your eyes, with a perspective that changes as you turn your head, as if you were at the center of a transparent globe of information. Turn to the left, and you'll see information tags appropriate for whatever real world object might be in view -- then look straight ahead and different information shows up.

For my demo, Mini created a simple environment with a few objects to focus on, and a car for a simulated driving experience. I looked at a poster for an art exhibit and an information display from the glasses told me its address, and that there were still tickets available. Accepting the navigation option, the glasses gave me route guidance from where I was standing to the car, driving directions in the car to a parking place, then finally walking directions from the car to the exhibit.

The experience in the car added a number of useful features. Route guidance showed more active, flowing turn directions overlaid on the actual street. Through a wireless connection between car and glasses, an icon popped up in my field of view showing an incoming text message, without the actual text. Pressing the OK button on the steering wheel let the car read out loud the body of the text.

Mini Augmented Vision
The Mini Augmented Vision glasses use a Qualcomm chip and software, along with two 720p projectors. Josh Miller/CNET

More ingenious -- and potentially useful for safety -- when I looked at the doors of the car, the glasses showed me a view from cameras mounted outside of the car, giving the impression that I was looking right through the door. I could see pedestrians to the sides of the car, and the view helped even more when I parked, as I could actually see the curb.

"We tried to keep the user interface very minimal to not distract the driver and just present the key information at the right time," said Robert Richter, advanced technology engineer at BMW's US technology office in Mountain View, Calif. "Safety is our primary goal."

The Mini Augmented Vision system is strictly a concept at this point, and what I experienced was a demonstration that did not involve actual driving. But the design of the glasses was quite good, and Qualcomm Vice President Jay Wright assured me they could be made much lighter and more comfortable.

"The vision we're all so excited about is the point at which a pair of glasses can become this head-up display for our lives," Wright said.

Mini Augmented Vision
The Mini Augmented Vision glasses serve up information in your entire field of view, rather than the small display area of Google Glass. Josh Miller/CNET

The glasses themselves use two 720p projectors, one for each eye, two cameras so the glasses know what you're looking at, and a GPS chip for navigation. Qualcomm's Vuforia software draws the augmented reality features on the glasses.

The imagery presented in the Mini Augmented Vision concept consisted of flat signposts, which does create a problem when you're also trying to focus on the real world. Wright assured me the system would support more advanced graphics that might appear painted on to objects in the real world, similar to what Honda previously showed as a concept head-up display at Nvidia's GTC developer conference.

The Mini Augmented Vision system is being developed at BMW's Silicon Valley lab in Mountain View. Although Patrick McKenna, manager of Mini's Product Planning, would not give a timeline for production, Wright suggested that the technology is coming sooner than we might think. And Richter said the company is still figuring out whether it will make the glasses on its own or rely on consumers to bring theirs.

"There isn't a production date yet, and one of the reasons is we don't know if we will produce those glasses -- whether the Mini brand itself will make them -- or whether customers will bring their own glasses and connect them to the car as we do with smartphones," Richter said. "That's one of the key questions we have for the future."