Navdy launches its dashboard heads up display to bring a bit of magic to driving

Last week, I hopped in a car with a third of Navdy‘s 12-person team. We drove through the clogged streets that mark the border of San Francisco’s Mission, SoMa and Potrero Hill neighborhoods, guided by something totally new: a small, transparent lens sitting on the dashboard that hovered turn-by-turn directions over the windshield.
Navdy’s heads up display, which is available for preorder starting today, doesn’t just do directions. Via voice or hand gestures, it can display essential data from a car’s computer, read and respond to a text message or pull up a requested song. The lens floats the information seemingly six feet in front of you, a distance that Navdy says allows drivers to never move their eyes from the road.
“You’re not looking down at knobs and buttons and touchscreens. You’re able to keep your eyes on the road at all times,” CEO Doug Simpson said.
I first saw Navdy at the January demo day for Highway 1–the hardware incubator the startup graduated from earlier this year. Simpson painted an exciting future where Navdy would lay directional arrows right onto roads, creating an intuitive new way to drive. Navdy isn’t quite there yet, although Simpson said that is still where the technology is headed. Instead, the heads up display (HUD) shows simple arrows, not unlike a traditional GPS system.

A Navdy prototype. Photo by Signe Brewster.

A Navdy prototype. Photo by Signe Brewster.

It’s simple and looks pretty good. When a call or text comes in, the screen splits into two so navigational data is still visible. The types and timing of notifications can be customized; for example, texts can appear only when the car has come to a complete stop at an intersection, or not at all, if a user wishes. Navdy is programmed through a mobile app on iOS or Android devices, from which it also pulls GPS info, music and notifications. It plugs into cars’ computers for power.
Navdy will rely on its users to program in settings that conform to local law, whether that means no texting on the road or no calls altogether. Simpson acknowledged people using the device in violation of the rules is a concern, but Navdy will do what it can to inform users of their responsibility. And if people are going to text anyway, Navdy is a better option that looking at and typing on a phone.
Navdy's office on Shotwell Street in San Francisco. The office, which sits above a mechanic shop, was once Twitter's office. Photo by Signe Brewster.

Navdy’s office on Shotwell Street in San Francisco’s Mission district. The space, which sits above a mechanic shop, was once Twitter’s first office. Photo by Signe Brewster.

“Improving safety is one of our big goals, and related to that, the distracting driving studies show the biggest issues are eyes on the road,” Simpson said. “We’re doing everything we can to ensure driver’s eyes stay on the road.”
During our drive, it was apparent that Navdy really does let you keep your eyes on the road. But it didn’t feel like the right part of the road. Instead of looking ahead at all of the cars, the HUD required me to look more in the area of the bumper of the car right in front of us. It’s better than looking down at a mobile phone in your lap, but it does require refocusing.
Navdy CEO Doug Simpson. Photo by Signe Brewster.

Navdy CEO Doug Simpson. Photo by Signe Brewster.

Navdy is not the first HUD, and it won’t be the last. What it has over the cheaper Garmin display and other options is a really well thought out experience. Navdy is just as much about answering a call as it is about navigation.
“It is an experience that is dramatically better than using a phone in the car. It is very magical with the transparent image, and intuitive,” Simpson said. “If you talk to people who have used a heads up display, after a week or two it just becomes so natural. It suddenly then becomes very odd to drive a car without it.”
The Navdy HUD is available through Navdy’s website for $299. It will later retail for $499 when the devices begin shipping in early 2015.