Yes, I look like a complete tool – more so than normal. And that’s just one of the many issues with faceputers. But for those of us that buy cars to drive and not as overpriced fashion statements, Mini’s augmented reality goggles are the fighter jet-style, head-up display of our dreams. I used them and now I need a pair.

BMW has been offering a heads up display in its cars for years and now Mini is in on the action with the latest Cooper. But Mini being Mini, it has some latitude to get nutty. Enter techno-Elvis.

About a year and a half ago, the automaker tapped the chipmonkeys at Qualcomm and collaborated with the automaker’s DesignWorks studio in So Cal to come up with its Mini Augmented Vision concept. Yes, they’re awful to look at, but they’re pretty fantastic to look through.

In a highly choreographed and tightly controlled demo, I sat in a parked Cooper in front of a massive screen projecting my “drive” around town. Street names floated above intersections and business names hovered next to buildings; my speed and the speed limit was displayed at the bottom of my field of view; and engaging but subtle animated arrows shot ahead and through corners to tell me where to turn. When I got a “text message” from a “friend” I tapped a button on the steering wheel and it was read aloud.

This feels like the future we were promised with Google Glass and the rest of the faceputer pretenders, but it hasn’t happened yet. And for good reason.

The litany of problems with Glass are as long and sordid as a tech bro’s Vegas expense statement. Battery life, interaction issues, price, style, and – most of all – privacy all conspired to its eventual downfall. But the idea of contextual information delivered in a timely, unobtrusive manner is still something worth exploring. And when you focus solely on the car, nearly all of those issues go out the window.

If you’re only using an AR headset while driving, battery life isn’t a problem and aesthetics are less of an issue. By keeping interactions and information limited and simplified, distractions are kept to a minimum. And as for privacy, the front-facing camera is only there to track the goggle’s position in the car. It isn’t designed to capture images or video – not that it matters much since any tool with a dash cam is recording everything already.

The camera is only one of the things that tracks movement. In addition to some inertial sensors, there’s an infrared camera on the top of the goggles that peers at the ceiling, which is – according to Mini – covered in a graphic that shows the history of the automaker. I can’t see it, but the sensor can, and that keeps tabs on the exact location and angle of the glasses.

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Mounted on top of the thick, rubberized frame is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 805 chipset, the same one inside the Samsung Galaxy S5, running Android (4.4 Kit Kat) and using its Vuforia AR software. That processes all the information from the sensors and wireless connection inside the car, while graphics are projected onto a second layer of glass through 720p screens – one of the reasons the goggles are so damn thick.

There’s a trio of buttons that I never use, and one capacitive touch panel on the top that allows me to swipe and press to make selections. There’s no latency or lag, and the whole thing comes across as minimal and simple, which is exactly what you want while behind the wheel.

However, Mini couldn’t just leave well enough alone. So in addition to some posters on the wall that would trigger alerts on the glasses, it also tapped into the cameras mounted at the edges of the car. It’s a variation on the 360-degree around-view displays that show a bird’s eye view, but by looking over to the passenger’s footwell, I can see “through” the sheetmetal to the curb for parking or – in one particularly contrived circumstance – a ball bouncing out of a person’s hand towards the car.

It’s demo frippery for demo frippery’s sake, but the ideas are sound. And all I could think about after taking off the thick, awkward (and also surprisingly warm) goggles was how this could work on the track. Using this same tech to display the line, braking, turn-in and acceleration points are the augmented-reality-Gran-Turismo vision that would actually make these things useful.

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Naturally, that’s still a ways off. This is just a proof of concept in an artificial world of Mini’s making. But the technology is there and it’s just a matter of gauging people’s interests, figuring out the market, and dealing with the baggage of Google Glass. Oh, and doing something about the styling. Because even a male model can’t make these things look even remotely cool.


Contact the author at damon@jalopnik.com.
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