Having taken over the devices on our desks and in our pockets, Apple might be moving onto an even bigger screen: the car windshield.
The world’s most valuable company is “very likely” working on a 27- to 50-inch head-up display, a technology most famously used by jet pilots, that could project vivid icons and information for drivers while on the road, a tech analyst with Global Equities Research said Thursday morning.
The curved-glass screen could also be wired with sensors and “may be completely gesture-controlled,” a stealth project that analyst Trip Chowdhry said could be Apple’s “next generation” device, after gadgets such as the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch.
Apple declined to comment, and Chowdhry said a launch of the head-up display, or HUD, “does not seem imminent.” The glass and display technology, he said, could be used in a totally different type of device, such as a TV, adding that the tech giant seems to be in the “early stage of something that could be a lot bigger.”
Rumors about Apple’s secret innovations have become a regular pastime for the many tea-leaf readers of Silicon Valley, and Chowdhry, who seems to be the only analyst so far to suggest Apple is working on a HUD, has been wrong before.
But if Apple’s head-up display really is in the works, it could mark a huge leap for the $660 billion gorilla into an industry already packed with big-money carmakers and tech firms, and further embolden the idea that Apple is looking to stake new territory on the world’s roads.
Apple’s hiring of auto-industry specialists and sightings in California of Apple-leased camera-mounted vans have fueled rumors that the software-hardware company is looking to build its own kind of car. In February, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal said that hundreds of Apple employees were working on a self-driving minivan, code-named Project Titan.
But Apple has remained tight-lipped about cars, which Apple executive Jeff Williams in May called the “ultimate mobile device.” The Cupertino, Calif., firm’s sole public foray into the four-wheeled world has been its CarPlay infotainment system, which lets people plug in their iPhones and use iOS-style menus to check maps and music libraries on their car’s dashboard display.
Head-up displays have quickly become one of the modern tech industry’s fastest-growing points of excitement. Earlier this year, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, tech firms and auto giants said head-up displays will be key upgrades one day.
BMW, Hyundai and Volvo presented windshield displays that would show drivers their now-playing music, give “speed warnings” if they were going too fast and even flash alerts if the car sensed a potential crash.
Some displays are already on the market. GPS maker Garmin sells a $105 dashboard-mounted display that beams out directions. And Navdy, a San Francisco startup, sells a $299 display that has been called “Google Glass for your car”: It’s a gesture-controlled, voice-activated projector that blasts out directions, texts, and Facebook and Twitter notifications at 40 times the brightness of an iPhone.
Other systems are being developed. In December, Jaguar Land Rover said it is working on a “360 Virtual Urban Windscreen” that would highlight pedestrians, show points of interest and display a “ghost car” that drivers could follow for directions.
Head-up displays, in the form of reflective gun “sights,” were used by fighter pilots during World War II, and some of the first HUDs in cars were as simple speedometers in Oldsmobile’s late ’80s Cutlass Supreme. But their renewed development in cars has stoked fears that they’ll be yet another dangerous distraction.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began researching head-up technology’s effect on distraction last year, though their results have yet to be released. In 2004, NASA researchers said even trained pilots lost focus because of HUDs’ vivid colors and compelling information, a problem they called “attention capture.”
“Just because someone has their eyes straight ahead doesn’t mean they’re seeing everything in their line of sight,” Paul Atchley, a University of Kansas professor who has researched attention in 3-D spaces for the U.S. Army, said earlier this year. “You get the illusion of paying attention to the road without the benefit of seeing what’s important.”