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AutoVision: The Bizarre In-Car Video Player That Never Happened

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Before long, your daily commute could get a little more fun. In fact, it might not feel like a commute at all. When completely self-driving cars finally get here, that daily drive could turn into a time to play video games, stream a movie, or watch the latest episode of the Game of Thrones prequel you know everyone at the office will be talking about.

While it seems like sci-fi, in-car video streaming will be here soon. But I only recently learned about how long we’ve been dreaming of it. Cleaning out an old storage space, I stumbled on the June 1993 issue of Omni. When I was younger, I never had much time for Omni, which seemed like it featured a lot of sci-fi pipe dreams that would never come true. Poring over a 26-year-old issue is fascinating, because you can see exactly why those crazy dreams didn’t come true.

Take the Electronic Universe games column, for example, which in this issue singled out the Sega Virtua VR headset as one of the 10 best game developments of the year. Think virtual reality headsets are new? Well, they’re not. So why didn’t Sega VR take the ’90s by storm? A peek at Wikipedia says Sega VR was used in arcades but never got a general release. Apparently, testers complained of severe headaches and motion sickness. Oops. Wonder if Omni’s games columnist ever actually tried the device before he raved about it.

The Wheels column discussed an even more provocative and unrealistic product: AutoVision. This proposed in-car TV system relied on a built-in projector mounted by the car’s center dome light. That projector beamed a TV image to a small screen on the windshield. The driver would then see the TV image floating just above the horizon, so he or she could keep one eye on the road and another on a favorite show.

Obviously, AutoVision never made it out of Park. Adjusting the radio is too much of a distraction for some people, so I hate to think what a highway full of TV-viewing drivers would look like.

But clearly, AutoVision was ahead of its time, because in-car TV is on the way. For a little perspective on the issue, I spoke to an expert, Tracy Swedlow, co-producer of the TV of Tomorrow Show. She’s been following the area for years. She pointed out to me that in-car video is already here. Anyone with a phone or tablet can play it. And, of course, backseat DVD screens have been entertaining kids for years.

Sure, today’s solutions are purely for passengers, but that will change. The car of the future will be a mini living room, Swedlow believes, with comfy seating and a little table. Freed from having to drive, people will be able to kick back and enjoy themselves. Future cars won’t even need TV screens, since the windows themselves could do the job.

New technology like 5G and ATSC 3.0 will help make in-car video a reality, Swedlow says. She knows of five or six companies that have secured funding and are now actively working on in-car video entertainment solutions. There’s a race on to be the Zenith of car TV, and I didn’t even realize it.

When does Swedlow think this new world of driving and streaming will be here? In about 5 years. It’s exciting to think that your next car might drive itself. I suspect that timeline is ambitious, but I hope not. I’m sure Netflix hopes not too. After years of stealing our sleep as we squeeze in just one more episode before we go to bed, we’d finally have plenty more time for our shows. Maybe binge viewing will translate to binge driving, and TV road trips will become popular. Just stream the entire new season of Stranger Things, and before you know it, you’re in Florida.

That could be our reality soon, and it’s pretty far out. Even farther than Omni could have predicted.

[This article appears in the October 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Drivin N Streamin."]

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