September 19, 2006 9:00 PM PDT

Honda investing in chips to help cars see

Honda wants to give its cars depth perception.

The automotive giant has quietly put $5 million over three years into Canesta, which specializes in chips that help computers make sense out of 3D spaces. The company's best known product is a virtual keyboard: Users plunk down their fingers on the laser light images resembling a keyboard and their finger movements are translated to keystrokes.

Honda believes Canesta's chips could help drivers know how close they are to other parked cars, pedestrians, and get other similar, useful information. Automakers are also examining ultrasonics (sound waves) or stereoscopic technologies to give drivers better information about their surroundings.

"It provides a comparatively low-cost chip-based 3D 'camera' that could serve multiple applications from a single installation," said Toshinori Arita, head of venture arm Honda Strategic Venturing, in a prepared statement.

Conceivably, the chips could be integrated into the body of a car or the cockpit. Honda is still in the testing and design phase, although it has pinpointed car models that it will try to put the technology into, said Canesta president Jim Spare.

"We're initially focused on the slower speed applications," he said. "Things like occupancy sensing for air bag deployments."

Canesta's product consists of a light source, a pattern projector and a sensor. The light and pattern projector sends out a continuous rain of beams of light. When the signals bounce back, they hit the sensor, which creates a 3D image from the timing of the reflected signals and send it to the processor.

"The key innovation is that we don't have to do any processing of the data (on a microprocessor) to create a 3D image. The sensor calculates the distances," Spare said. "The microprocessor is used only for application processing. Is this a pedestrian or a tree?"

When something moves into a region patrolled by the chip, the signals bounce back at a different pace, and the 3D image is changed. Software translates the mass of data into information or an image that humans can understand.

Automakers have been dedicating more time and research into safety. Some of the ideas being explored include putting devices or systems in the car that would warn drivers of objects in the road or prevent the car from switching lanes when a speeding car is in the driver's blind spot.

Herman Casier, a researcher from Belgium's AMI Semiconductor speculated at a chip conference last year that by 2040, cars will drive on auto-pilot.

Spare added that Canesta has licensed its keyboard technology to a South Korean company who is looking for partners to develop it commercially.

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