With Google taking on the sidewalks with augmented reality walking navigation for Google Maps, Apple has its sights set on the road.
In a patent application submitted in Jan. 2019 and published on Thursday by the US Trademark and Patent Office (USPTO), Apple has described a potential system for using a mobile device's camera (presumably, an iPhone or iPad, or another, unreleased mobile device) to overlay navigation prompts on the live view of the road in front of the driver.
Based on the patent, this enhanced version of Apple Maps would analyze a series of captured images to establish the position of the horizon and lanes identified. The app would then block out areas of the images outside of the recommended route to highlight the route itself and overlay images representing navigational prompts directly onto the lane.
In this proposed system, Apple Maps would highlight the lane that the driver is currently traveling in with arrows pointing forward for the driver to continue on the current path, or block out the current lane and highlight an adjacent lane, with arrows prompting the driver to change lanes. Additionally, pop-up windows would indicate upcoming turns or milestone distances surpassed.
Later in the patent application, Apple makes the case that AR navigation would improve a driver's understanding of route information by comparing it with current implementations, namely a smartphone mounted to a car's dashboard or via a smartphone's display output reflected on a heads-up display on the car's windshield. In both use cases using current methods, Apple argues, drivers still have to interpret their position and surroundings on the road using only the mapped image. However, with Apple's proposed AR system, the navigation prompts would appear directly on the driver's view of the road, providing a more immediate understanding of the route.
Since introducing its own mapping app in 2012, Apple has struggled to surpass Google Maps, the market leader. Nevertheless, with a slew of new features coming in iOS 13, Apple appears to be mounting a serious challenge to Google.
If Apple does implement this AR driving navigation feature in Apple Maps, it would represent a major advantage over Google Maps, which currently only offers walking directions in AR. Moreover, Apple's system takes a different approach versus Google Maps, which relies on matching the camera view to Street View images to orient the user.
In another part of the patent application, Apple envisions the system being used in "other embodiments" including "portable consumer devices." It might sound like a stretch today, but it's not difficult to imagine that one of those portable consumer devices might include a pair of Apple AR smartglasses specifically designed for driving.
In this case, AR driving navigation on mobile devices also serves as a prelude to how Apple might implement such a feature in its Project Titan self-driving car, which has also faced rumors of cancellation, despite indications to the contrary.
Whether it's AR wearables or self-driving cars, Apple's continued work in the mobile AR space serves as a refreshed warning to competitors: Don't count Apple out just yet, more AR products are on the way.