If you've ever been found yourself hopeless lost at the end of a mountain logging road at 2 a.m. on a moonless night with the fuel gauge flashing "empty", you'll agree that satellite navigation is a pretty good idea. For drivers who routinely travel to new destinations in unfamiliar places or simply lack even a basic sense of direction, they are a godsend. Unfortunately, they can also be very difficult to use. The satnav receiver may be a little plastic screen propped on the seat next to the driver, mounted in a plastic claw or built in to the dashboard, but what they all have in common is that the driver has to either keep glancing away from the road or hope they hear the voice prompt correctly before the exit goes flashing by. This is not only inefficient, it's potentially distracting and dangerous. Even the head-up displays (HUD) found on some high-end cars only moderate the problem by moving the small display from the dash to the windscreen. What's need is something that keeps the driver's eyes on the road by unobtrusively blending in with the real world beyond the windscreen.

That's the idea behind the True3D, which recently won the EUR20,000 Galileo Master 2011 grand prize at this year's European Satellite Navigation Competition in Munich, Germany.

Developed by the California-based company Making Virtual Solid, True3D is billed as "an augmented reality navigational display engine designed to provide non-distracting, translucent location guidance." That's another way of saying that True3D takes the HUD to its logical conclusion.

3D Head Up Display

Instead of one tiny rectangle down by the windscreen wipers, the True3D system uses a 3D projector technology to beam the display across the entire front window of the car. With a standard satnav readout, that would be like pasting a road map over the glass and about as dangerous, but what the True3D system does is blend its readout into what the driver sees on the road in front of the vehicle. It layers a luminous, three-dimensional landscape over the real world so that the information the driver needs is available without distraction.

For example, the little colored line on a satnav map that tells the driver where to go becomes a luminous "virtual cable" overhead that works like those stripes sometimes used in hospital corridors. It also throws up virtual road signs to warn of conditions ahead and service stations, hotels and other attractions are identified by virtual signs floating above them. All of these are rendered with a degree of volume and solidity that is intended to be comfortable to look at and increase situational awareness.

A comparison of the Virtual Cable (TM) with existing car navigation systems

The tricky part of all this was to make the True3D system do all this and to maintain the visual clues such as depth perception and focus distance without the need for headpieces, special glasses or viewers. According to Making Virtual Solid, the technology requires only a small hardware package, operates in bright sunlight and is unaffected by either the driver or car's movements so that the illusion remains stable. In addition, the display can project more traditional text and graphics, though in larger size and closer to the driver's eye level. In all, it works to provide drivers with the a trimmed down version sort of no-need-to-think-about-it stream of information normally only enjoyed by fighter pilots, though without the frightening insect-like helmets.

The Making Virtual Solid True3D system is still at the demonstration level, but if it is as adaptable as claimed and can operate successfully in the real world, then it has the potential to make a big difference for driving safety.