Google Inc. and Volkswagen of America Inc. are developing an in-car navigation system that displays a photo-quality view of a route, instead of the typical line drawings found in current systems.
Graphics chipmaker Nvidia Corp. is also part of the project, which has produced a prototype that was shown in last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nev. The three companies are hoping that consumers will take to seeing pictures of the stores, houses and office buildings they pass en route to a particular location.
Arne Stoschek, head of displays and sensor materials at Vokswagen's Electronic Research Lab in Palo Alto, Calif., said current navigation systems that present road maps and display directions are not the optimal way for helping people find a store in a shopping mall.
"It's not the way we actually perceive the environment," Stoschek said. "A photo representation of the surrounding environment with respect to the car is a much better way for navigation."
Rather than having to hunt for a toy store in an outdoor mall, VW drivers would be able to see the retailer's building, Stoschek said.
Neal Polachek, analyst for The Kelsey Group, said it was "premature" to say whether Google and Volkswagen, based in Auburn Hills, Mich., have a winner. The latter company declined to say when the navigation system would be available in cars, saying only that it planned to continue demonstrating the prototype at shows.
"The concept is interesting, but what happens in 12 months? Who knows?" Polachek said, noting that it's not unusual for projects to fizzle.
"Visuals of locations, however, would be very compelling. They would present a better experience than just maps," Polachek said.
Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., would provide the search engine for retrieving information from the Web to overlay on the photos, Stoschek said. Using the system's touch screen, a driver could search for the closest gas station, for example, and get back a list of several on a photo of the surrounding area, along with the price of gasoline at the different locations.
The 3-D display would come from Google Earth, which combines road maps with satellite imagery of locations. The service is available for a computer through a software download from Google.
To use the system, a driver would type in the destination, and the system would offer the best route, based on traffic conditions, Stoschek said. A red arrow would direct the driver through streets or highways.
The driver also would have the option of previewing the route, which could be helpful before taking that road trip for the weekend.
"With this kind of system, you could see the hotel where you're staying, instead of just getting directions from A to B," Stoschek said.
The car would be equipped with a global positioning system, so the navigation unit would always know the time and location of the vehicle.
The satellite photos used would not be pictures taken within minutes. Instead, the photos would have been taken several weeks before and retrieved over the Internet from a database, Stoschek said. Pictures taken within the last 30 days or so would be acceptable.
"Buildings don't change much in a month," Stoschek said.
Nevertheless, the information received would still be timelier then the street maps used by drivers in most car-navigation systems today, which display information from CDs, Stoschek said.