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Drivers, get ready to meet the Smart Headlight version 2.0.

Funded by Intel and Ford, among others, researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious Robotics Institute claim they have designed a radical new LED car headlight that will transform the driving habits of those using it: Researchers say it improves driver vision in snow, rain, and dark.

“Nowadays, you have computations for every part of your car, but headlights have been left out of this,” said team researcher Srinivasa Narasimhan. “You can do a lot of tasks with this headlight, see the lanes clearly, see through bad weather, anti-glare capabilities. All of these things we have done with a single design.”

Antiglare illustration

The new headlight, which Narasimhan described in a phoner with VentureBeat as the Smart Headlight Version 2.0, has taken nearly two years to design — and perfect. While most standard LED car headlights contain 12 to 14 LED digital individual lights apiece, Narasimham’s has 1 million of them. Each of these 1 million lights is controlled by a computer for maximum output.

“With this headlight, you have tiny mirrors sending out data with megahertz speeds, and so it splits these beams into 1 million beams. This makes sure the driver has, ultimately, an unobscured vision and less stress when driving through bad weather like rainstorms and snowstorms,” he said.

The Smart Headlight apparently blacks out the shiniest the part of the headlight, so drivers aren’t blinded. And they can even look out for snowflakes and raindrops and prevent them from sending bright lights into drivers’ eyesight.

The design team used a DLP projector, which replaced the traditional cluster of lights that comprise a single headlight, for their design. Researchers compiled their equipment used to make the new headlight from “off-the-shelf” auto parts stores and computer shops. According to a CMU release:

“A camera senses oncoming cars, falling precipitation and other objects of interest, such as road signs. The one million light beams can then be adjusted accordingly, some dimmed to spare the eyes of oncoming drivers, while others might be brightened to highlight street signs or the traffic lane. The changes in overall illumination are minor, however, and generally not noticeable by the driver.

System latency — the time between detection by the camera and a corresponding adjustment in the illumination — is between 1 and 2.5 milliseconds, Tamburo said. This near-instantaneous reaction means that in most cases the system doesn’t have to employ sophisticated algorithms to predict where an oncoming driver or a flake of snow will be by the time the headlight system responds.”

Not surprisingly, Narasimhan and company are fielding calls from all the big manufacturers of LED headlights. With this new smart headlight, the robotics team appears to have beat many traditional makers of headlights to the punch. Before I interviewed him, Narasimhan was on the phone with Mercedes about demoing the invention … and perhaps doing business.

In fact, Robert Tamburo, the project’s lead engineer, will present findings from the project’s smart headlight testing in September to an eager audience at the European Conference on Computer Vision in Zurich. Eriko Nurvitadhi and Mei Chen of Intel Research also contributed to the project, which raised about $1 million in funding.

Narasimhan said the new smart headlight has huge application potential around the globe.

“Everybody is interested in this space,” he said. “This kind of design gives more flexibility with much better performance than your standard headlight.”

You can read more on the smart headlight here.

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