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  • Head-up display is one of the major trends in Shutterstock’s 2017 Creative Trends Infographic. Discover more trends in global culture, design, music, video, and social media in this annual report.

    When Pokémon Go was released in 2016, it was for many an introduction to the magic of augmented reality (AR). Through their smartphones, gamers’ immediate world was transformed: A local church became a Pokéstop, a park became a gym to fight for Pokésupremacy.

    But the game is just a keyhole glimpse into the medium’s potential. With hands-free AR headsets like Microsoft HoloLens or Google Glass, and their head-up display (HUD) that alter the world instantly in front of your eyes, a new experience is emerging. Imagine walking to work with a HoloLens on – you could unexpectedly spy a Charmander pop out of a mailbox. AR could make media content like Pokémon a seamless part of your daily life.

    Therein lies the appeal of AR.

    Virtual reality, with its bulky headsets that swallow your entire field of vision, cuts you off from the world and immerses you in one that doesn’t exist. AR, on the other hand, keeps you anchored in the world around you and blends digital info into it.

    head-up display
    AR keeps you anchored in the world around you and blends digital info into it. Image by Zapp2Photo

    As Anne-Fleur Andrle, CEO of AR-conferencing company AMA XpertEye, puts it: “VR is like putting a bucket on your head and you’re immersed somewhere else. With AR [you are] still interacting with [your] environment, so there is so much more that you can do.”

    How much more? The current and future iterations of HUD and AR promise to fill the vision of individuals in a range of industrial and commercial uses that will do nothing less than change how we, quite literally, see the world.

    A Brief History of Head-Up Display

    The potential of HUD in the future is partly informed by its past. Head-up displays (HUDs) were invented in the 1950s with a goal familiar to AR: Enhance the real world with external visual information. The first official HUD was designed as a military tool to help fighter pilots better combat airborne enemies, providing data for targeting, altitude, speed, rate of climb, and more

    Like many military inventions — duct tape, GPS, the microwave — the HUD even made the leap into other industries. Notably, some commercial airlines began using HUDs in the 1970s to help pilots with takeoff and landing via visual guides.

    The development of HUDs seemed guided by a key question: “How can a task be improved by presenting information in a user’s line of sight?” That same question is currently guiding today’s development of AR and HUD.

    The Future Begins with Industries

    Such a question is commonly asked in the industrial setting, where streamlining is always a priority.

    Head-mounted display manufacturer Aero Glass produces smart glasses that use AR to provide aviation assistance. Pilots put the glasses on, and are then guided through takeoff, flight, and landing with information on navigation, weather, and more. But unlike the static traditional HUDs, Aero Glass conveys relevant flight information in 360 degrees. “The big advantage with the head-worn display is that because it moves with your head we can display information in all the directions that you’re looking,” says Ákos Maróy, founder of Aero Glass.

    head-up display control panel
    The big advantage with the head-worn display is that because it moves with your head we can display information in all the directions that you’re looking. Image by blackjack

    But industrial applications of HUD and AR go beyond aviation. Think of any area where workers might benefit from information within sight as they do their job.

    Take the aforementioned AMA Xpert Eye, which makes video-communication software that can be installed on a range of smart glasses. It’s used specifically to connect experts with on-the-scene individuals — sometimes with vast distances between them — to guide them through various processes. For example, last year Xpert Eye was given to Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to allow expert technicians in an office to guide field mechanics through public transit repairs. That’s just one industrial application, but many more are possible. “We work with trains, we work with aerospace, we work in commercial insurance, we work in medical devices,” says CEO Andrle. “We’re carefully listening to the market.”

    Xpert Eye is not alone in that. Organizations like Pristine are making remote insurance assessments possible, Upskill‘s Skylight enables industrial and mechanical equipment building and repairs, and Ubimax aids order-picking and sorting in warehouses.

    What would that look like? Imagine an insurance assessor looking at a damaged car with Google Glass and a program that analyzes the car in real time, helping to provide an assessment in minutes; a factory worker using Magic Leap to see an animated step-by-step guide to putting together a device; an Amazon employee using a HoloLens to get GPS guidance to a product location in a massive shipping warehouse. It’s these realities that Anderle believes will go a long way to AR’s success in industrial applications. “It needs to specialize in different industries to really make it work long-term,” says Andrle.

    Beyond Industry and Into Everyday Life

    Even if AR and HUDs thrive in industrial settings, there’s still room for it in our everyday lives. Let’s not forget the massive appeal of Pokémon Go.

    More of that is to come, albeit with more ambition. For example, Magic Leap has previewed a AR game called “Victory” where attacking robots appear seamlessly integrated in your 360-degree environment, and Microsoft HoloLens has shown off the ability to play Minecraft right on your coffee table, or shoot at aliens bursting through your living room wall with the game Project X-Ray.

    All that said, many of us are most likely to begin encountering commercial AR in a way that impacts us on a daily basis will be where we spend a lot of our daily lives: in cars. The automobile industry has been an early commercial adopter of HUDs. Manufacturers like Toyota and Nissan have dabbled with the technology, but General Motors especially has for decades played with more primitive forms of HUDs, primarily showing your speedometer or gas gauge on your windshield.

    head-up display history
    General Motors has been experimenting with HUDs since the 1960s. Credit: Itnerd.blog

    But now standalone devices like Navdy, Carrobot, and SkyScreen are pushing forward with the ability to project GPS routes, texting, calling, and other information onto the windshield in front of the driver. A 2016 Juniper Research report estimates that over 16 million HUD units like these could be installed by 2021, sparking a fourfold market growth, and potentially changing how we see the world while driving.

    head-up display car
    A shot of SkyScreen’s head-up display. Credit: SkyScreen

    It may even change lives, thanks to telemedicine potential too. On the smaller scale of applications, programs like AccuVein can project visual guides onto patients’ skin to help find veins. On a larger scale, the European Space Agency has developed an AR headset that lets astronauts perform medical diagnoses and even minor surgeries, or there’s Proximie, which enables remote surgery assistance which means doctors could aid colleagues in remote clinics to provide better care.

    All this blue-sky potential, however, shouldn’t overlook the challenges of having our worlds flooded with digital information.

    The Challenges of Visual Clutter

    Because AR and HUDs change not just how we see, but what we see with visual imagery, there’s a question both industrial and commercial uses have to face: How do you find the balance between giving users the information they need without obscuring their vision? Or, as Aero Glass’ Maróy puts it: “The UX challenge is: ‘Okay, is this actually bothering the user or is it helping him?’”

    The answer to that question will be sought after in the coming years, especially because a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. For example, a pilot may want lots of information from their AR headset, and that can be accommodated thanks to the wide open sky ahead to project on. On the other hand, a Google Glass-wearing surgeon working on a tight nerve cluster won’t have a lot of real-world room to project visual information without obscuring what they’re doing.

    head-up display
    How do you find the balance between giving users the information they need without obscuring their vision? Image by Panumas Yanuthai

    Solving the issue of who sees what, with which device, will require a lot of collaboration, but Andrle says that leaning into those uses will pave the way. “There is a lot of figuring out to do, but I think it will work if people specialize into different use cases and industries,” she says.

    The Road Ahead

    Market intelligence firm Tractica expects annual HUD shipments to increase from 2.7 million units to 36.0 million between 2015 and 2025, and TechSci Research anticipates the global market will grow at compound annual growth rate of over 20 percent from now until 2021.
    There’s little doubt AR and HUDs will have a tremendous impact in technical applications. It may soon be possible for a world-renowned doctor in New York City to guide a surgeon through an operation in a disaster zone, or for a parent on a business trip to build LEGO in AR with their son back at home, or for a detective to instantly analyze a crime scene for clues.

    For the outlook on AR and HUDs, Andrle puts it best. “We are on the forefront of a brand new industry, and a brand new way of doing things,” she says. “What will be coming next? A lot.”


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