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iPhone control of real vehicles

The morning keynote on Wednesday at the Web 2.0 Expo opened with a strange request, asking those of us with wi-fi capabilities on our phones, to turn them off. Moments later, Christian Coly of Parrot, Inc. demonstrated the AR.Drone, an iPhone-controlled toy quadricopter, live on-stage. Guided by the iPhone's accelerometer, the copter swayed, as the iPhone moved, while transmitting the view from its onboard camera directly via wi-fi to the iPhone. The quadricopter landed swiftly with one click. (See video below.)

Coly explained the company's vision and early investments in wireless was due to the insight of CEO Henri Seydoux, who also realized that "augmented reality (AR) would be a new opportunity to change gaming experiences." Parrot's Quadricopter will ship with an "AR poster" that the quadricopter will identify as the enemy. Coly envisions that such AI-identification markers could make the toy quadricopter into a backyard "copter-wars" game system.

Back on the terrestrial level, on the other side of the world, Gavin Williams, a college senior at Bournemouth, has created Wi-Drive, an iPhone app that lets you drive and see through the windshield of a remote-controlled toy car. Taking the view beyond the iPhone to a pair of virtual reality goggles, Gavin explains that, "The idea is complete immersion, putting you literally into the driver seat."

From remote-controlling toy vehicles, and even being able to see through their windows, it seems the next step would be being able to remote-control the larger vehicles, that we drive everyday. While this inspirational video demo made viral last year showed a fake system, Raul Rojas of Freie University, Berlin and his team created in 2007 the "Spirit of Berlin," an "autonomous car" controlled by an iPhone. Joined by Fraunhofer IAIS, Rice University, and the Instituto Politecnico Nacional, the Freie Berlin team and co were selected as semifinalists by DARPA in the 2007 Urban Grand Challenge Competition for driverless vehicles.

In the realm of currently marketed iPhone car-control devices, Viper SmartStart, a remote car locking device, now also lets you start your car at a distance. This feature doesn't do the magic of "fetching your car," but might be useful for defrosting the car, or getting the air-conditioning started well in advance on weather days.

Automated parking systems typically only ship with luxury cars, but Hong Bae of BHS Technology, a local startup I discovered at the Stanford CPX 2010, has created a parking assistant that can be used in any car. Using the iPhone's accelerometer and a sensor device on the car, the demo showed the iPhone give step-by-step directions, such as "turn left all the way", "stop", "back up slowly", etc., to verbally guide a blindfolded driver in parallel parking a car.

As more of the world becomes mobile, and as device and system connections become more accessible with ubiquitous API's, more and more transportation devices will include ports for mobile-device-based operations. If street traffic status could be transmitted precisely at the granular level, it might even be possible to simply go to sleep on the driver's seat while having your mobile device drive your car for you. But, thinking back to that live demo at the Web 2.0 Expo keynote, if these remote-controlled devices have their functionality impaired by others on the same wi-fi network, we may have some irksome traffic jams to deal with, in our mobile wi-fi transportation future.

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