The Haptic Drive
Umeå Insitute of Design, Sweden
The Haptic Drive
The project takes on the huge problem of distraction and cognitive load while driving. Use of multiple sensors – touch, air, temperature, sound – demonstrated a high level of thinking about the problem. We believe that some of the design solutions are well thought out, even if the execution was at a prototype level. In reading the text and watching the video, we also felt that it was sophisticated that the designed acknowledged that while this solution couldn’t solve every part of the problem, they were putting a dent in it and this showed a strategic and realistic approach that we appreciated from a student.
The Haptic Drive
The aim of this project was to make driving a safer experience, while embracing the flexibility of touch-screens and expanding upon it. The concept which emerged form the design process allows the driver to operate the most common functions in the car without having to look at the screen. The specific kinds of haptic feedback were chosen to mimic physical properties of the settings that they represent. This way the driver is able to operate the functions without having to learn them first. All of those functions have been implemented and tested in a fully functional prototype.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
A recent trend in the automotive industry is going towards infotainment systems that are based solely on touch-screens. While this makes interfaces more flexible and opens up new possibilities, it also comes with a few drawbacks. Interacting with a touch-screen requires a lot of visual attention compared to buttons and knobs, which is not the best thing when you are driving. Studies suggest that 25 to 50% of near-misses and accidents happen because the driver is visually distracted. The aim of this project was to augment touch-screens with haptic feedback to reduce glance time, without increasing cognitive load or sacrificing the flexibility that touch-screens have introduced to car interfaces.
The main challenge was to improve touch-screens with haptics that don't have to be learned, which can be tricky since the information that can be obtained this way is limited. But it's a challenge worth accepting in order to make driving a safer experience and reduce the risk of accidents. This project should also help create a paradigm shift in thinking about car interfaces and urge car manufacturers to put more emphasis on a good experience, rather than just the amount of features.
Although the brief was focused on haptic feedback alone, I wanted to dig deeper into other senses to explore their advantages and limitations. I was interested in how to unload some of the visual overstimulation onto them. In the process I discovered that a good experience can not be based on one type of feedback alone but is rather comprised of synchronized visual, auditory and haptic stimulation. The sense of touch is very powerful and diverse yet it lacks the bandwidth to stand on it's own. Despite those limitations can haptic feedback be used to operate functions blindly? Are the users able to identify, manipulate and receive a conformation without glancing at the screen? How can we minimize the trade-offs between decreasing visual distractions without increasing cognitive load?
I also wanted to understand how the automotive industry operates. I was curious about the reasons behind the lack of good car interfaces and what this project can do for better ones to be implemented? As it turned out this is not an easy task since it is a systems problem that ranges from design, over production to marketing. Therefore I put a lot of effort into producing haptic feedback with components which are readily available and not too expensive. Although the focus of this project was on haptics I also wanted to create a better visual experience, distil the graphics and make the interface itself a good selling point by itself, beyond just being a vessel for delivering countless features.
The research phase included going through a lot of existing automotive human-computer interface research to find out what works, what doesn't and how to improve it. Talking to some of the experts in HCI, haptics as well as in the automotive industry helped a great deal in understanding the technology and the industry itself. The best way to understand users needs and wishes was to talk to them and figure out what they think, what distracts them the most, which functions the really use and what they are missing. To better understand customer requirements and try out some car interfaces, I visited a few car dealerships and talked to the people working there. This confirmed the initial hypothesis that everything the customers are looking for in the car infotainment system is navigation, media, radio and phone functionality. All of the above helped in framing the exact nature of the problem and possible directions for a solution.
Loaded with the knowledge from the research phase I facilitated an ideation workshop with some of the brightest minds in the automotive in mobile industry. They were able to come up with a lot of great ideas and insights that helped in developing the concept further. After an ideation phase of my own I started building prototypes and putting them to the test. In order to be implemented into the final concept, each idea had to pass through several steps. It had to be feasible, had to mechanically work as imagined, give the intended feedback and of course be understood and enjoyed by the user. The unusual hexagonal knob shape, for example, was decided upon by users through testing over 20 different knob shapes and sizes. I came up with a concept layout where all basic functions are accessible on one screen, because switching a lot between functions posed a problem to the users. I tested this with paper mock-ups and none of the users had issues with completing tasks and finding their way around the interface, even without previous explanations of how it works. Simplifying the graphic elements was also an iterative process that resulted in dozens of different shape and colour variations. All the test prototypes were supported by either an Arduino or by analogue electronics and mechanics. The final prototype was running on an Andorid tablet, with two Arduinos that handle all the sensor and actuator data, as well as a bunch of other electronic components. Most of which were never intended for the use in haptics. It took four iterations of 3D prints to get the mechanical movements and click feedback just right. I decided for those tools because they enabled a quick move from exploration to finished prototype.
Throughout the project I kept a tight feedback loop with the stakeholders to evaluate new ideas as quickly as possible. The main stakeholders were users in the age group from 20 to 35 years and an automotive design consultancy I collaborated with, which also represented the interests of the automotive industry.
This concept has the potential do disrupt how the automotive industry is thinking about interactions in vehicles. It challenges how car interfaces have been created so far and proposes next steps. Most people who have seen the project or tried the prototype asked when they could have this in their own cars. There has also been a lot of interest from car manufacturers, automotive suppliers, design consultancies, researchers and the general public ever since the project has started. Some of the research findings and ideas are already being used to create better and safer experiences for future automotive interfaces. The prototype itself is currently being used to showcase haptics and inspire new thinking in the automotive industry. Some of the impact has already been seen in show cars and will make it's way into production cars in the near future.
It also paves the road for better haptic experiences, beyond the vibrational motors that are currently seen as the pinnacle of haptic feedback. Haptics are the new, uncharted territory for interaction design. The carefully chosen haptic feedback in this project has helped users to operate the interface nearly blindly, or with greatly reduced glance time, be it setting up the climate control or finding an element in a long list.
But the most important goal of this project is to make driving a safer experience by letting the driver focus on the road without getting distracted. It has the potential do reduce distracted driving, reduce accidents and save lives.