Drivers are constantly taking their eyes off the road to read text messages, check GPS, or use increasingly common touch-screen controls. Hyundai's newest concept car shows a way forward, and it uses the same kind of technology as your Xbox Kinect.
At the Detroit Auto Show, Hyundai talked up a storm about their new HCD-14 concept, particularly how its styling is supposed to preview upcoming design trends for the brand. Forget that. It's yet another mild concept car, just like any other we've seen for the last decade.
Wrapped up inside the all too familiar coupe-esque sedan exterior is the coolest thing on the whole show floor: an infotainment system with no-touch controls that uses eye recognition and Xbox Kinect-style 3D motion sensors.
In the HCD-14, you select a control by looking at an icon on a heads-up display and you make adjustments by reaching your hand up in front of the dashboard and turning your hand. You never take your eyes away from the road, you never reach out to touch the dash. It's genuinely worth getting excited about.
The eye recognition was developed in partnership with Tobii, the company that blew the minds of the Gizmodo crew when they went to CES. Gizmodo writer Casey Chan tested Tobii's eye control system on a laptop, which you can see in operation here, functioning just as it does in the Hyundai.
The system requires a personal calibration test before you use it and some unique finger movements (akin to a smartphone), but once you get settled in, it's simply stunning. It's sniper accurate, Tobii never missed my target by more than a few pixels. It's lightning quick, I couldn't even say my next move fast enough because Tobii had recognized my eyesight already glanced away.
The way Tobii's eye tracker works in the Hyundai is you press a button on the back of the steering wheel with your left hand to activate the system. A sensor in the steering wheel tracks your eyes as you focus on one of four icons put up on a HUD. There's the telephone, the temperature, the audio, and the navigation. You release the button and the item is selected.
Once the control is selected, you reach out with your hand like you were going to turn a knob a foot away from the dash. There's a detailed motion sensor in the headliner that reads a 1 foot area in front of the dash, recognizing even the shape of your hand as you twist the imaginary knob. This is how you raise or lower the temperature (seen above), change volume for the radio (seen at the top), switch stations, whatever. The company that Hyundai worked with for this gesture control is SoftKinetic.
I spoke with Christopher Chapman, chief designer of Hyundai North America, and I also spoke with the lead interior designer for the HCD-14 concept. Both claimed that the gesture system used in the concept was similar to the Xbox Kinect system, but Hyundai's was more detailed. We couldn't get a Hyundai designer to explain the fundamentals of the motion-detection system, but this article in Wired detailing how Microsofts' Kinect system works is probably not far off. Gizmodo also put the visual hardware into pretty simple terms in this 2010 article.
The way the optical system works, on a hardware level, is fairly basic. A class 1 laser is projected into the room. The sensor is able to detect what's going on based on what's reflected back at it. Together, the projector and sensor create a depth map. The regular old video camera is held at a specific distance away from the 3D part of the optical system in a precise alignment, so that Kinect can blend together the depth map and RGB picture for dynamic, on-the-fly greenscreening.
I should point out that Hyundai's system may use different sensors, and was not operational on the floor. The interior designer said it was thanks to an overheating issue and was genuinely crestfallen as he admitted it was broken.
I peeked under the car and all I saw was a bunch of tubes. How this thing is supposed to run with a 429 horsepower, 5.0-liter V8 is beyond me, so I'll cut Hyundai some slack on their concept car issues.
Even if the car had been functioning (as it was the following morning of the Auto Show), I wouldn't have been able to demo the systems. One Hyundai rep told me that the systems were locked to just two sets of retinas, presumably of the developers behind the concept car. I asked if they had a spare disembodied eyeball I could use, but they didn't have one.
I then tried to at least get in the car to shoot some video of the twin dashboard displays. The one for the driver only displays the bare necessities for operating the car, while the one in the center runs all the games and infotainment systems. The center display is angled towards the passenger to the degree that the driver really can't get distracted by the video poker or whatever else the person riding shotgun is doing. Unfortunately, the Hyundai representatives could not get the wirelessly-activated doors to open, so I had to again turn away empty-handed.
The video you see at the top of the post features Christopher Chapman and was shot by Hyundai itself. Hyundai claims the systems are remarkably intuitive, which I can't yet personally verify. I can say that from speaking to the designers I fully believe that this technology works at least at a prototype stage.
The idea behind the systems is what really appeals to us. Texting and busy in-car infotainment systems are genuine safety concerns as we hear of more and more accidents from distracted driving. Drivers are focusing on in-car games and taking their eyes off the road. When we're all in driverless cars it won't be a problem, but until then distracted driving needs to be seriously addressed.
Christopher Chapman pointed to safety as the reason why he was personally pushing for these systems and why the in-car screens displayed only the bare driving essentials to the driver.
"I don't like the idea of entertaining the driver at all," Chapman said. When I mentioned a stereotypical distracted driver watching movies while behind the wheel he interjected, "they have no business doing that in the car." He went on to tell a story how two people in his neighborhood were killed in a distracted driving-related crash.
Since Hyundai debuted everything at this show, they have currently had no talks with the Department of Transportation about getting these systems approved for use on the road. It's a great idea, and one that meets the DOT's desire of reducing distracted driving while also meeting the enthusiast's desire to reduce clutter inside new cars.