If you're in a F1 car racing around a track, there's a lot of information to interpret — whether it's something you can see on the tarmac in front of you, or raw data coming from dozens of onboard sensors and computers. Having too much information is a genuine problem for F1 drivers, and having it all displayed in one place is only part of the solution. In partnership with championship leader Mercedes AMG, Epson is now a Formula One sponsor, and it might be able to make the first step in fixing that problem.
Epson's new partnership with the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 team — the Japanese company's first sponsorship of the sport in 20 years — will see the team use both off-the-shelf hardware like the Moverio BT-200 smart glasses and Pulsense heart rate monitors for team mechanics and support staff, as well as bespoke devices and customised software, in between and during future F1 races.
The Moverio smart glasses are basically augmented reality specs, letting users view the world around them while also looking at a display in each lens — for something as basic as watching TV, or for a task as complex as interpreting live telemetry from a racing car. Epson's constant heart rate monitors will help mechanics, and not just drivers, train at an optimal level and improve their fitness to cut down pit stop times. While they're technologies that have useful real-world applications, they also point to a potential purpose in the F1 helmets and drivers' suits of the future.
Any future F1 helmet with a HUD integrated into the lens would necessarily be a very expensive piece of technology — like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter helmet — and would have to pass a massive barrage of safety tests and new legislation from the world's most technically locked-down racing body. But it's nice to dream.
In an interview at the Mercedes F1 team's 2015 season kick-off before last weekend's Melbourne Grand Prix, we asked Lewis Hamilton how he wanted the technology of Formula One to develop in the next few years. Lewis' salient point was that sitting in a F1 car and driving it around a track at multiple hundreds of kilometres per hour, all while looking at a steering wheel with dozens of buttons and a multi-segment display, led to one thing: "information overload."
A helmet with a HUD would bring at least some of the information forwards from the F1 car's steering wheel to the driver's helmet: "I can't tell you why it's not — it might have been banned — but I've asked the question many times. But until we've not had Epson on board; we had a meeting a couple of weeks ago and I was saying "hey, how am I going to take the helmet technology further?" It has been the same since I started 22 years ago, and Formula One is about development and moving forward. This is that progression."
But would a HUD make driving a F1 car easier? "You always want to make it easier for the driver. The less you have to worry about, the better. I can't tell you if it's going to be a distraction until we try it, but for now we have a huge display on the steering wheel that tells you so much stuff — and you have to take your eyes off the road for a second to look at it to adjust switches. If you had it on the [HUD] screen and could be looking forwards, and could catch it in the corner of your eye..."
Information overload has always been a problem for drivers in Formula One, but it's something that drivers have to just deal with. "It's always been that way — it's always been overloaded. You have to be selective, and you have to get on with it. The team will want to give you a hundred things, and you have to pick... if you can get by on fifty, then that's what you need." A helmet with a HUD is one possible way to address that.
Hamilton still thinks of himself as a natural driver, but knows that reading the data and working with sensors is the way of the future. This is a sport where, one day, a HUD inside the helmet is an almost certain future: "I've always been a seat-of-the-pants guy, but this is an era where you have to be able to combine both. You have to study all that data, and I'm always trying to improve."
Heart-rate monitoring, too, is more important than it sounds. Lewis: "That's really been a big part for the mechanics. They're in the pit stop, having to carry those big guns and those tyres — and they need to be faster than ever and have precision. It's grown over the years, but those guys have to be fitter than ever. There was a period of time when they were big, chunky guys and now it's not possible. When I'm at the factory I'm working out with these guys, and we have to monitor their performance as well as mine. That's the next step — we're the world champions, but we want to be better."
For now, here's a look at the massive amount of information that an F1 driver has to interpret, act on and adjust throughout any one segment of any one lap of any one race through the car's steering wheel: