hud-car
Technology Planning and Analysis

Sci-fi HUDs: A full circle of pointlessness?

People love hearing about science fiction devices and tech making the transition to real life. If they aren’t pointing out that Star Trek: The Next Generation’s communication device, the Padd, inspired the designers who would create the iPad 23 year later, they’re comparing smartwatches to Dick Tracy’s Two-Way Wrist Radio or complaining that flying cars should definitely be invented by now.

But in real life, plenty of inescapable realities prevent sci-fi escapism from coming true. We may be able to create a flying car, but we’ll never be able to regulate traffic on a three-dimensional airspace. Just look at the storm over drones. And even if we did regulate air-traffic, flying would be so similar to a standard commute that it wouldn’t be fun at all.

One example of sci-fi tech’s challenging transition into real life may be the most impressive of all. In fact, the dashboard heads-up display could be an example of a technology that became a reality just in time to become obsolete. That’s right, the HUD might just be the design world’s equivalent of an evolutionary dead end.

To be fair, dashboard heads-up displays – which can really be any transparent display that presents data – have existed in the military for decades. The relatively low-tech version first appeared in a British Royal Navy and Royal Air Force’s 1960s-era strike bomber, the Blackburn Buccaneer.

Why are people interested in heads-up displays?

HUDs are available as built-in features or as add-ons for many cars, but they made a splash last fall when they arrived in an easily-mountable consumer-aimed gadget.

The San-Francisco-based Navdy boasts a dashboard-mounted dock that holds an iPhone or Android device, while projecting a six-inch hologram that pulls data from your phone through an app. The display technology can tell you where to turn, field calls and send tweets, and even connects to your car’s computer to update you on the date of your next oil change.

It’s the same tech used by commercial airline pilots when landing, as the monotone yet surprisingly charismatic narrator of Navdy’s introduction video explains. The site’s claims that it “works like magic” and “feels like science fiction,” aren’t empty boasts, but are practically self-evident.

Science fiction films love HUDs: Even pre-CGI, a simple wireframe hologram was easy to patch into a shot, making the HUD a cheap way to present a futuristic world. Better yet, HUD displays are by nature visual, making them the perfect information delivery system for film. Sometimes the film’s emphasis on audience-ready visuals overrides the film’s internal logic, as when a pair of VR googles in Back to the Future Part II flashes the word “phone” in LEDs on the outside of the goggles rather than in HUD visible to the wearer. 1976’s Logan’s Run uses non-holographic displays, but 1997’s The Fifth Element presents a military-grade floating HUD, and pale blue motion graphics shoot across Tony Stark’s face anytime a Marvel movie cuts inside Ironman’s helmet.

HUDs are so common in sci-fi movies that one recently confirmed fan theory about Star Wars — that the far, far away universe’s society is functionally illiterate — relies on the ubiquity of holographic interfaces to prove its point.

What is HUDs place in the real world?

In the real world, visuals aren’t everything. In fact, they’re increasingly pointless. Two forms of interacting with information are more direct: gestures and speaking. The new UI is no UI, as Osmo’s lead designer Tony Aube explained in a TechCrunch article last November.

In Aube’s argument, messaging is on the rise, and the process allows users to rely on an often-AI-powered back-and-forth that doesn’t demand any visible interface. AIs can depend on dialogue to receive and impart information. As AIs develop farther, the Internet of Things is far more likely to feature invisible voice interfaces (or even brainwaves) than touchscreens.

But what about HUDs in the future? Well, as a visual interface, the HUD is closer to a screen than it is to voice-powered tech. And when driving, there’s a clear distinction between essential visuals (stop signs, speed limits, deer) and unneeded ones (the next tweet you plan on sending). However, there’s a final deal-breaker in the future of the consumer vehicle’s heads-up display: the self-driving car.

What happens when self-driving cars become normal?

Clearly, the navigation implied even in Navdy’s name will become useless once a consumer’s car can navigate itself. Mass adoption of fully autonomous cars may take decades, as we’ve recently reported, but at this point the invention seems like an inevitable future.

Influential designer Scott Jenson, in his keynote for CHI 2014, coined a term that doesn’t quite describe the dashboard HUD, but sheds light on its future. As reiterated by Aude, Jenson’s “technological tiller” concept refers to when a design for an old technology is shoehorned onto a new technology with little regard for its actual usefulness. The best example? One early automobile prototype, the 1896 Ford Quadricycle, used a tiller instead of a steering wheel. The boat’s tiller, designed to push through water, was a painfully poor choice for the relatively high-speed car, and was quickly discarded.

A heads-up display on a car makes sense today. But as autonomous cars become available to the general public in the 2020s, it won’t. Just as a tiller is useless when added to a dashboard, HUDs are useless when added to a future without any dashboards at all.

The dashboard HUD is as cool as any functional sci-fi tech, which means that it’ll appeal to one demographic: early adoptors. But as any entrepreneur worth their salt will tell you, early adoptors — while important — will never form the backbone of a consumer-focused business. No technology, from the smartwatch to the invention of language itself, can survive unless it has a mass-market appeal. And if a windshield isn’t an intuitive method of delivering essential information, it won’t be scalable as an interface.

Right now, the heads-up display has some usefulness, reducing a driver’s fumbling efforts to read a few steps ahead in their Google Maps route. But as UIs become invisible and as the self-driving car cruises from sci-fi to reality, the windshield heads-up display begins to look more and more like a flashy but irrelevant piece of Silicon Valley miscellany.

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Adam Rowe

Adam Rowe is a freelance science and technology writer. He splits his freelance research time between finding bizarre science facts and bizarre science fiction, documenting it all @AdamRRowe.

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