$99 SenseHUD Merely Beginning Of SenseDriver's Push For Auto Display Platform Dominance

We sometimes think about a heads-up display (HUD) in our cars as a tool for convenience, but of course it's also designed for safety. Instead of constantly looking down at your phone to text, check incoming messages, and so on, it makes more sense to keep your eyes on the road and let a HUD feed you your information.

SenseHUD, Your $99 Co-Pilot

SenseDriver's new SenseHUD is a device designed very much with that in mind -- like so many other automotive HUDs -- but it's also rather inexpensive at $99. It's an elegantly simple, small, portable device that sits on your dashboard and gives you a 4 x 4-inch transparent display that shows you map navigation, your speed, and other data at a glance.

That's compelling enough, but SenseHUD is really built to make voice the center of everything, allowing drivers to spend less time looking at even the HUD. The company wants you to think of SenseHUD and its AI voice, "Hudson" (get it?), as a co-pilot. In a charming (though still rather robotic) English accent, Hudson gives you turn-by-turn directions, tells you when you're speeding, reads your messages aloud to you, and more.

The device can also auto-reply to texts and phone calls on your behalf when you're behind the wheel. SenseHUD is also voice activated, so it's a completely hands-free experience.

One feature that SenseDriver is especially keen to promote is what it calls "Votxting" (pronounced "voh-texting"), which is a text-to-speech tool that limits you to a 140 character limit. The idea behind it is that instead of you chattering away, you're forced to be concise and therefore will spend less time talking and more time driving. (If you wanted to make the point that thinking hard about how to keep your message so short is possibly more distracting than just talking more, we wouldn't argue with you.)

Back to that $99 price tag: SenseDriver kept the costs so low in a couple of different ways. For one thing, the real intelligence of the SenseHUD comes from your phone; you actually dock (Michael Amaru, SenseDrive co-founder, calls it "injecting") your phone into the device, and everything runs off of that, including the SenseHUD mobile app, your GPS and so on.

Second, all SenseHUD does, effectively, is mirror your phone's display using its special glass. "Normally, you'd need a really bright projector, or a really bright LCD screen in order for that to work in all lighting conditions," Amaru said. "But because we have a patented technology that allows us to adjust reflectivity [and] the tint of the glass, based on the environment, we're able to put our focus into that as opposed to coming up with a really bright display."

SenseHUD offers up to 90 percent reflectivity for your phone's display even in broad daylight, and it can also intelligently gauge the environment and turn on a layer of tint to help the displayed data be a bit more readable. This reflectivity is controlled by running an electrical current through the LCD. It's a clever idea, although SenseDriver can only take so much credit for it, as the company got the tech from the U.S. military.

To power the unit, you need at least a 12 V source, which is typically what's available in most cars. SenseHUD will also charge your phone while it's docked (or "injected" as the case may be) via a USB port and a short cable.

One potential downside to the SenseHUD in the estimation of some users is that because your phone does all the heavy lifting, functions such as GPS will be more limited compared to a fully-featured GPS unit. We asked Amaru whether the SenseHUD would potentially have its own better-than-your-smartphone GPS capabilities at some point, and although he wouldn't say whether or not that may happen, we inferred that this function, and possibly others, could be baked into future SenseHUD devices.

SenseHUD will have both Android and iOS apps, both of which will be ready in the very near future. SenseDriver started off with Android first, actually, mainly because of how locked-down iOS can be. At the moment, the company hopes that both versions will be identical, but it's possible that there will be some minor differences.

Safety First

HUDs are designed to keep your eyeballs on the road instead of on your phone, but some have pontificated that any extra "thing" in the car, be it your phone or an HUD or OnStar-like hands-free capabilities, are more or less equally deadly in that they all distract you.

Amaru didn't shy away from that issue, but he firmly asserted that SenseDriver is very much focused on safety. The whole notion behind its products is getting your phone out of your hands.

He also didn't buy the idea that all "distractions" are equal. "If you look at it simply, if you're keeping your head in an upright position, looking at where you need to go, you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that's more distracting than an in-dash touchscreen display, or anything like that."

The SenseDriver team is also pragmatic about human nature. Just because it's against the law to use your phone while you drive, they pointed out, that doesn't mean that people aren't going to do it anyway. They also noted that if you want to get technical about distractions, everything is a potential distraction. For example, something as innocuous as a dashboard bobblehead can pull your attention away from the road. Even if you're responsible about keeping your phone tucked away while behind the wheel, some people get distracted, in a way, worrying about the calls, texts, and emails they're missing out on.    

Thus, the end game for SenseDriver is really about taking whatever people are already going to do and making it safer. "We really worked hard on tuning what is a visual aid to getting something done versus overloading the user," said Amaru. That's why the company built in so many voice features, for example.

Only The Beginning

The SenseHUD offers a modicum of compelling features, but this is just the beginning for SenseDriver.

"SenseDriver Technologies is a company that is investing in safety in the car, and we're going to have a whole product line," said Dr. Kingsley Chin, a developer of and investor in SenseDriver. The company sees the HUD as an entire platform for safety, and it wants to see its technology in cars of every make and model. The company is working on capabilities such as engine light warnings, maintenance tracking, and other car diagnostics -- anything that can appear on a HUD.

In the short term, SenseDriver technology should work with a variety of cars and platforms via Bluetooth OBD2 ports that can send out data directly from the vehicle's computer to, for example, an Android app. However, SenseDriver is developing proprietary technology, in conjunction with unnamed partners, that will open up greater opportunities for integration. There also may be acquisitions for the company down the line.

SenseDriver is building a display platform here, consisting of both hardware and software, but the processing power will come from other sources, such as your phone or your car's computer.

"We're going to be very aggressive in this space, because we feel that we have an opportunity to be the leader," said Chin.

SenseDriver will be displaying SenseHUD at CES next week at the Sands Expo Hall.

Follow Seth Colaner@SethColaner. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.

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