May 13, 2014

Virtual Controls are on the Horizon

By Shadi Mere

Consumer research is a crucial part of our innovation process at Visteon. Among many other benefits, it gauges consumer acceptance and perceptions of the new technologies and experiences that we are creating. This is important because, as new technologies are investigated and developed, it can be easy to lose sight of the consumer problems that we are trying to help vehicle manufacturers solve. As the old idiom goes, it’s easy to “lose sight of the forest for the trees.” Consumer research provides a good way to step back and objectively evaluate our concepts. We learn which problems are being effectively solved, and are alerted to opportunities for improvement.

During one of our consumer clinics in Chicago last year, I had a very interesting encounter with a research participant – a pleasant elderly gentleman. Upon introduction to our Horizon cockpit concept, and before he could even start the testing, he paused and asked, “Why are you guys doing this? Leave my radio alone and let me keep my knobs and buttons.” After a quick exchange, he grudgingly went through the testing procedure for our concept. Then an interesting thing happened. After interacting with the concept, he completely changed his perception ...  and ours! I will circle back and explain how.

The Horizon concept shown above has an open, spacious and minimalistic cockpit design. There are no visible buttons or controls.  The concept lets consumers experience the transition from physical controls (knobs, buttons, dials, etc.) to communication tools that people naturally use – such as voice and hand gestures – and both visual and sensory feedback. 

When a new technology is introduced, companies are always faced with questions. “Is this technology for technology’s sake or does it add real value?” The learning curve of a new technology is a big part of the answer. In general, the higher the learning curve, the worse the perception and the lower the adoption rate.  Furthermore, if users learn a new technology and still can’t perceive its benefits, the technology is likely unnecessary. Another important question is whether or not the experience resolves an issue. As we implemented gesture-based controls in the context of a vehicle cockpit, we took great care to ensure that we were solving problems for consumers – and not creating new ones.

Let’s go back to the elderly gentleman from our consumer research clinic. The concept that this gentleman tested enables users to interact with their vehicles through a combination of voice and gesture recognition. One feature allows users to simply rotate their hand in space to turn a virtual knob. Furthermore, users can change the function of the knob with their voice. For example, if the user says “knob volume,” his or her hand now controls a virtual volume knob. This virtual knob can be re-purposed for a number of features, including adjusting temperature, changing radio stations, selecting songs from a playlist, etc.  The movement required is minimal and effortless, and the consumer does not have to perform the gesture in a precise location. Additional features identify what is happening with the system; an animated knob appears on the display that corresponds to the function being controlled, and audio feedback is given to the user to indicate action is being taken.

As the elderly gentleman used the system, he called out "knob-volume," and he rotated the knob in space. He heard the lowering of the music volume as he moved the knob. At that point, he seemed delighted. He thought for a moment, and said, “I like this a lot, since I have problems reaching and gripping the knobs in my car due to my arthritis. A lot of times, I’m not sure where functions are buried in menus.  With this, I can call out any function, control it with my hands, and I don’t even have to look at the screen.” His experience and response altered our perception of the appropriate target consumer for this technology. Generally, we assume that users from younger demographic age groups will embrace new technologies more readily than those in older demographic groups. However, this encounter inspired us to look at Horizon a bit differently. As we examined the data after the clinic, we realized that the Horizon concept resonated across all age groups and demographics. The reasons for consumers’ interest varied, but we learned that Horizon offers exciting benefits for consumers of all ages.

As we probed deeper into consumers’ comments and reactions to features in the Horizon concept, we gained a number of insights. What became apparent is that consumers were interested in technology that helped them communicate with the vehicle in a way that was natural for them. For gesture-based technologies, this meant that people wanted to use gestures that were similar to motions they often made with their hands – the simple rotation of a virtual knob, or a natural movement of reaching toward a control to activate it. This insight was similar to what we discovered early on when we researched voice recognition – people are hesitant to learn a new “language” to communicate with their vehicle.

When automotive manufacturers add technology to vehicles, they have the best of intentions. Too often, though, these technologies can create problems of their own. The technology is too complex for consumers to comprehend, the implementation is too complicated, or the use cases simply aren’t fleshed out well enough – all of which can lead to technology failures.

We need to continue to dig deeper and push our technology further to uncover the right applications, the right context, and the right implementations to deliver the ideal consumer experience. When it comes to innovation in the automotive electronics industry, sometimes we have to plant a few more trees before the forest appears.

Shadi Mere is an innovation manager with Visteon’s “Innovation Works” team. He works on advanced innovation, “disruptive” technology, human-machine interaction, creative design management, consumer experience research and high-technology trends. During his 18-year career, Shadi has worked in engineering design, advanced manufacturing, product development and strategy, and program management -- with a focus on bringing promising inventions to life. 

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