We're kicking off a weekly feature today, in which we'll download an automotive-themed smartphone app, take it on the road to test it to see if it's worth the money or the space on your smartphone.
First up is imaGinyze's Augmented Driving for the iPhone 3GS.
So-called Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) like lane-departure warning and forward-collision warning are becoming more common on high-end cars, and these active safety features are starting to trickle down to lower-priced ride like the Ford Taurus and Toyota Prius.
Augmented Driving promises to both protect and annoy you like some of those nanny safety technologies. But with this app you only have to spend $2.99 instead of tens of thousands to buy a car with the features built-in. Of course, the app isn't nearly as accurate, reliable or easy to use as similar OEM features and it can be a pain to initially set up. But it does provide some pretty cool benefits for just a few bucks.
These features include lane detection, lane-departure warning, vehicle detection, speed warnings, moving traffic detection and distance information. Its also has what the developer calls an HUD (head-up display), but is really just the display for the app when in action. You can also snap a pic of what's in the app's field of view by hitting a record button, just in case you want to get the license number of the douche who cut you off or get the chance to snap some spy shots to send us.
Set up of the app is crucial and a bit kludgy. You'll obviously need some sort of windshield mount for your iPhone, and one that doesn't block the camera lens in any way. imaGinyze recommends that the the phone be positioned as high on the windshield as possible and directly in the center. I found that if you line it up with your rearview mirror but have it low enough that you can still easily view it, you're golden.
The app has a tutorial when you first fire it up that walks you through the set it up, and a Systems Settings screen is available when you hit an OPT button on the HUD screen. It lets you can select the color of the HUD's lettering (yellow, red, green or blue), an automatic recording setting to easily snap pics, a calibration reset and a "Time Gap" that relates to how soon you'll get warnings when you bear down on the butt of the car in front of you. The Time Gap, or distance information feature, only works when you have a GPS signal.
In the System Settings screen, you also select the camera height (relative to the ground) and the width of the host vehicle in meters. So get out your tape measure, and if it doesn't have metric measurements or you didn't pay attention to that stuff in school, be prepared to convert the numbers to feet.
A different Sound Settings page allows selecting either sound or voice alerts for the app's six separate warnings. But I found that even with a Magellan Premium Car Kit with an amplified speaker it was difficult to hear the warnings, given in a robotic feminine British voice. Finally, you can hit an "i" button to get to a "Quick Manual" with detailed set-up info, and this is all done using the iPhone's trademark, touch, tap-tap and swipe inputs.
For the set up, I found that the most critical step to be adjusting the angle of the mount so that the camera focuses straight ahead and aligns with the road so that it can detect lane markings. If you get it just right, the four-corner box dead center lines up with a vehicle in the lane in front of you.
I tested the app in three very different vehicles — a 2010 Range Rover Sport Supercharged, 2011 Ford Fiesta SES and a 2011 Cadillac CTS Coupe — and once I got used to the idiosyncracies of the app it was a snap to set up. Plus, the auto calibration feature kicks in after about 5 minutes of driving on a road with clear lane markings once the app is dialed in properly.
Once on track, the app overlays your lane in blue. If you drift out of it, the app overlays the lane in purple and issue a warning. Similarly, when a vehicle is detected in your lane, the app highlights it within a yellow box. And depending on the gap you've set, the box switches to red and the app issues a warning (via voice it's "Watch Your Distance"). Once a vehicle gets out of your way and moves to the adjacent lane so that you can blow past, it's boxed in green.
With good lighting, a well-marked road and the proper set up, the Augmented Driving app did a pretty impressive job of detecting lane markers, boxing cars (to the point where I felt like a fighter pilot locking onto a target) and tracking my speed. For the speed warning, you can set a target velocity between 10 and 99 mph and the app will warn when you've exceeded it. At times it was even more detailed than the speedo in the Rover and Caddy, showing speed in decimal readings, such as 73.4. But other times it was off by as much as 10 mph or more.
Ultimately, the incessant warning become annoying, and the app can be a major distraction if you're watching it instead of the road. But more than once, as I glanced down to check my speed or change a radio station and slightly drifted out of my lane, it issued a lane-departure warning and I got back on track without crashing.
The app, however, crashed quite often, which some user reviews on iTune's App Store have complained about it. But I found that exiting firing it up again usually got it going. Once I did have to turn the phone off and back on the get it to respond. The app is also highly dependent on ambient light and being able to see lane markers, and it doesn't work well in low and bright, blinding light.
Even though it performs as advertised, many drivers will find the Augmented Driving app's warnings tiresome after a while — say, 15 minutes or so. It's probably best for inexperienced drivers who may need extra guidance. And probably the best byproduct is that if you make an inexperienced or careless driver use the app, at least it may keep them from texting or talking on the phone without Bluetooth hand-free.
Bottom line: There are much worse ways to blow three bucks. Like parking. Or Coffee.
Doug Newcomb, Senior Editor, Technology
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