Uber Wants to Fill the Boredom of Self-Driving Cars With VR

The company aims to patent virtual reality technology that lets you jack in while on the road.

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson

This could be you. Image: Uber patent application

Uber is forcibly shaping the future of transportation, and a couple of its new patent applications show the company is already preparing for a future where we're so bored by our commutes, we need complicated virtual reality systems to entertain us while we lounge in our self-driving cars.

Two nearly identical applications, both titled “Virtual Reality Experience For a Vehicle,” were filed by the company on August, 5 2016, and published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) last month.

“Most people travel the same routes at the same times of day over and over again and are interested in using their travel time for something other than looking at whatever is currently visible out of the vehicle’s windows,” the applications state. Basically, Uber says, your daily commute equates to time wasted, even in an autonomous car that theoretically requires you to do nothing.

An example implementation of an autonomous vehicle utilizing a virtual reality system. Screenshot: Uber patent application

The VR system that Uber hopes to patent uses a self-driving car’s sensor data to generate a unique virtual environment for riders. For example, an action game that’s synchronized with the kinesthetics of the car itself. This could help address VR's motion sickness problem, which occurs because of the lag between simulated and real motion. It might also create annotated AR overlays that offer sightseeing information for tourists. Even things like checking email or reading the news, which don’t strictly require VR, but, then again, this is the future.

All of this is happening, meanwhile, in a taxi with no driver, or one whose only purpose is to operate the vehicle should it need manual intervention.

We don’t know whether Uber envisions this technology being coupled with VR headsets, or something more sophisticated (albeit non-existent), like glasses or contacts. The idea of slapping on greasy goggles worn by countless other passengers is pretty gross, to be honest. And there are several other obstacles for which Uber fails to provide solutions.

Uber did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.

“There are some concepts on how to capture and sense the motions that a car is undergoing, and, erego, what the passenger is undergoing,” Joseph Gabbard, an associate professor at Virginia Tech’s Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, told me. “Even predicting it and making that movement data available to the software layer. So, if you have a savvy VR programmer, you could somehow account for that in the software. But Uber doesn’t really say how.”

“This thing would flop so hard if word got out that it was making people sick,” Gabbard added.

Block diagram illustration an example autonomous vehicle including motion prediction and virtual reality systems. Screenshot: Uber patent application

Uber also addresses the dilemma of situational awareness while wearing a headset. “For example, a rider would be able to see a representation of other passengers to avoid colliding with them or to monitor if another passenger is accessing their personal belongings,” the applications note.

Making the most out of your commute isn’t bad. But jacking into VR, instead of chatting with your fellow passengers, is a bit dystopian. For a while now, Uber has been chasing a future that’s simultaneously hyper-personalized and depersonalized. By making drivers obsolete, or forcing them to crank your favorite Spotify playlist, Uber is transforming taxis from a service that humans provide for other humans into a piece of hardware, like your iPhone or laptop.

“It’s like being shuttled around, having our virtual contact lenses in, and shutting ourselves off,” Gabbard said. “I think there’s the potential for lost social connections in a world that’s becoming that way already.”

Neither of Uber’s patents have been realized yet, and entirely autonomous cars are still a ways off. Both of the patents’ inventors, Richard Donnelly and David Bradley are employees at Uber Advanced Technologies Group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which heads up the company’s self-driving car research. Donnelly is an advanced vehicle design manager, and Bradley is a staff software engineer.