Automotive and aerospace supplier company Gentex is developing a hypersensitive camera for vehicle interiors, and the company is showing it off at CES 2022. The idea is to use this technology for next-level driver and cabin monitoring. The firm's optical-based system is so responsive it can sense your heartbeat, detect a sleeping baby's breath and even make out objects that aren't in its line of sight.
This may sound like witchcraft, but there's nothing mystical about what Gentex is doing here. Essentially, engineers are bringing smartphone facial-recognition technology to the automobile. Neil Boehm, chief technology officer and vice president of engineering at Gentex, explained, "It's similar to that, except we're using a laser-based system to create 5,000 to 7,000 dots." These points of light are then used to create an accurate depth map of the entire vehicle interior. "With these dots we can actually detect movement," he said, but not just someone gesticulating wildly at the camera lens; rather, the system can pick up microvibrations. As your heart beats, for instance, it rustles your clothing just enough that the sensors can register it. In the case of a napping infant, their breathing imperceptibly moves the car seat, which the system is sensitive enough to detect.
Boehm said the technology features a lens that has a 170-degree field of view and roughly a 5-megapixel camera sensor. Infrared LEDs are used for two-dimensional imaging, though a laser creates the "structured light," meaning that depth map of small dots. Altogether, everything is compact enough to be mounted in an overhead console or even a rearview mirror housing.
Gentex's new sensing technology, which it acquired late last year after purchasing an Israeli startup company called Guardian Optical Technologies, can be used as an advanced rear-seat reminder system so you don't forget your child or pet in the car, but it can also be employed to improve safety. The system is smart enough to know where people are seated, how far the driver is from the steering wheel and even where their hands are, factors that can be used to fine-tune airbag deployment in a crash to maximize safety. As in more and more vehicles these days, Boehm said the technology supports over-the-air updates, so it can be improved over time as new features become available.
"We have some work to do there," Boehm said, as Guardian Optical Technologies basically closed down due to COVID-19, but he sees this ultrasensitive in-vehicle monitoring tech hitting the market "within four to five years." He said this estimate is driven by the automotive development process, which typically takes a few years to bring new vehicles to market. When it does arrive, expect Gentex to offer OEMs a variety of solutions, from basic driver monitors to cameras that map entire car interiors.