BABENHAUSEN, Germany – In the 1960s, hippies asked “What is reality?” Now the question on everyone’s lips is “What the heck is augmented reality?”

Most folks have a general idea of what it means. We see it in sports broadcasting where arrows and information bubbles identify specific cars on a racetrack, or the first-down line appears in yellow or red to television viewers watching a live NFL game.

In vehicles, augmented reality involves overlaying computer-generated data and graphics on top of objects in the real world to inform the driver through an advanced head-up display: Big navigation arrows seem to hover in the air at an intersection and point the way; a string of shimmering red balls light up the road’s center line, like a first-down line, to warn the driver he is veering too close.

Auto supplier Continental says this concept is a game-changer when incorporated into HUDs, an automotive technology that so far has been slow to capture consumer interest.

“It is the first step into a new form of communication between vehicles and drivers,” says Eelco Spoelder, head of the Continental Instrumentation & Driver HMI business unit. “The AR-HUD initiates a dialog without words between the driver and the car.”

HUD systems are not new. General Motors first introduced them in 1988 on several low-volume Oldsmobile models. A handful of other automakers followed, but there was no stampede. Denso, Delphi and Nippon Seiki, in addition to Continental, currently supply a variety of automakers ranging from Audi to Kia. But the technology has not changed much in the past 25 years and most consumers still view it more as a novelty than a safety enhancement.