Virtual Valet: Using an iPod Touch to Park Cars

Feb 10, 2011
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After ranting about stupidity not qualifying as a disability to park in an accessible space, I got a kick out of researchers developing a Virtual Valet to park cars.

What many people do not realize is that some of the technology that we take for granted, like speech-to-text, was first developed as an assistive device for persons with disabilities. Researchers at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University have successfully tested an assistive technology system in which cars can drop off those who were riding in it, and then park itself using an iPod touch video feed. The research is being done because it is a common problem for drivers/riders to have problems parking with enough clearance for van wheelchair ramps to open — even if there is an accessible parking spot.

In the past 30 years, the population of people needing wheelchairs has had a six-fold increase. The number is supposed to exponentially increase as baby boomers age. Researchers have come up with a low-cost, short-range, semi-autonomous parking method without requiring the driver to stay in the car.

In truth, when using this system, the car is totally capable of parking itself with zero human interaction, but the researchers say people won’t accept fully autonomous technology for fears about losing control and someone getting hurt. They designed this system so that a human can supervise the parking process from afar and be ready to interrupt the process if needed by using an iPod Touch.

Multiple behaviors are programmed to work in a coordinated fashion so that the vehicle can drop off a passenger, park the vehicle, and return to pick up the passenger.

The researchers used a Jeep Wrangler decked out with all kinds of sensory and processing capabilities, such as “six SICK LMS 2-D laser scanners, a custom vehicle state measurement system based around GPS, inertial, and odometry sensors, and various cameras, all mounted on a reconfigurable sensor rack. A small array of on-board computers record and analyze sensor data.”

In their Virtual Valet research paper, they wrote, “Swiping up or down [on the iPod remote video feed] intuitively toggles between forward and back video, echoing the convention of checking a rear-view mirror. Video is transmitted via WiFi datalink, however in practice, we expect the datalink will be whatever is most suitable for the user (e.g., 4G wireless, DSCR, etc).”

The iPod touch interface “shows 60-degrees of forward view at a time and can be panned left and right to reveal a full 180-degree image.”

Here is a video of the test vehicle in action while it uses the Virtual Valet system and iPod touch.

Future work is more about getting humans to accept and trust the Virtual Valet which could be on the market within the next decade.

Author: Tessa