LAS VEGAS -- We've seen some remarkable uses of augmented reality before, like apps that do live translations of street signs (Word Lens) or apps that use your GPS to generate a map layer of constellations when you point your iPad at the sky (SkyQ (opens in new tab)). But the new iOnRoad for Android is different. Beyond gimmick or novelty app, it may be the most helpful use of augmented reality that we've seen so far. And it's amazing to see in live demo here at CES.
The app's premise is simple: Mount your smartphone on your dashboard, fire up the app (which activates your camera) and let it watch the road. The app keeps the picture captured by your shooter running live in full screen on your phone, and uses special algorithms to process the picture; it also uses your GPS to detect your current speed. Then—and here's the phenomenal part—it calculates, based on your distance, how many seconds away you are from colliding with the vehicle in front of you. When you get too near and a crash is imminent, the app displays the distance in a big red sign on your screen: 0.3 sec. Then it flashes a big "warning!" sign across your screen and beeps loudly, calling attention to your terrible driving so you can slow down. There's also a yellow sign for distances where you're not too near, but still in a precarious situation (0.6 sec). And when you're in a good state, the app shows the sign in calming green (0.9 sec).
An equally impressive feature of the app is alignment detection. Say you're starting to fall asleep at the wheel, and you start to drift off to the side. The app senses that you're no longer lined up with the car in front of you and sounds a jarring alarm to wake you up.
We're thoroughly impressed by how many elements the developers leveraged to make it come together in a useful app—the GPS to detect your speed, the camera to show you the picture and map your distance and in-app calculations to show you how much time you have before you make an impact. Of course, the app isn't totally perfect. There's only front-facing detection, so if someone rear ends you, you're out of luck. You'll also notice a "GPS" button on screenshots of the app, but this feature isn't live just yet while the app is in beta mode (though developers say they're working hard to release it in the next iteration). Plus, you'll need to purchase a GPS mount separately for the app to actually work—and some states (like California) are very specific about where you can mount dashboard devices in the first place.
But thoughtful details make up for these deficiencies. For instance, there's an on-screen button right on the screen to let you snap a picture of a car who cuts in front of you, and afterwards, a Facebook share button pops out so you can instantly shame your offender. You can text, call and access your music from within the app. Developers even addressed the issue of battery drain from your camera's constant activation, developing a solution that keeps consumption 30% less than running Google Maps on your Android phone (or so they claim).
All in all, we're pretty amazed by what this app has accomplished and look forward to future versions of the app. Currently, there's an iOS version being displayed at iOnRoad's CES booth, but it's still in alpha version so it's a little buggy. But that means there's hope yet for Apple users (like us)! You can download the app from the Android Market right now. And guess for how much? Free.