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The Reconfigurable Display Revolution

Handled properly, development of these devices will have a positive impact on the relationship between supplier and OEM, and OEM and customer.

"The interior of your average vehicle will be almost totally unrecognizable." So says Paul Lambert, v.p. and general manager, Electronics-North America, Johnson Controls, Inc. (Plymouth, MI; www.johnsoncontrols.com), speaking about the changes in vehicle displays. Lambert points to the changes taking place in general aviation, where reconfigurable video screens capable of displaying real-time information in full-color 3D images are rapidly replacing analog gauges. These so-called "glass cockpits" offer an intuitive representation of information important to the pilot at that moment, and offer an insight to what we can expect.

Driving this change is the growth of personal electronics, and the move toward multi-function video displays and gestural interaction with these devices. Just don't expect future generations of vehicles to become rolling iPods or iPhones. "We built a radio with an iPod-style rotary switch for a consumer clinic," says Frank Homann, v.p. Continental Interior Electronic Solutions (Auburn Hills, MI; www.continental-corporation.com), "and found that our clinic respondents also wanted switches and buttons because the iPod interface wasn't suited to use in a moving vehicle." Homann's team learned a very important lesson: Just because something has been done in a consumer electronics product does not mean it should be done in an automobile. What's more, they also realized the human-machine interface has multiple layers. "The HMI not only has to be intuitive," he says, "it must be a gatekeeper as to how much of the available information is displayed."

Enter Rodger Eich, manager of Johnson Controls' Electronics Design Studio in Holland, MI. He leads an interdisciplinary team that includes human factors designers, interaction designers, industrial designers and engineers to create user interfaces. Each project, he claims, needs to flow through a three-part process that must understand:

1. Human thought and cognition
2. Technology integration into the vehicle
3. Interaction 

Human thought and cognition, for example, looks at whether the process is triggered by a system event (e.g., a warning light) or a desire to interact with the vehicle in order to reach a goal. Technology integration can be as prosaic as the size and placement of the display, or as esoteric as the finer points of ergonomics. Interaction is the sum of the tradeoffs between behavior, system integration into the vehicle, and how well the interface takes advantage of human senses and interacts with them. "Making these tradeoffs is not an easy task," says Eich, "because the world is 3D and happens in real time, and this colors our expectations of how we want the display to communicate with us." Not only does this increase the requirements on the display hardware and software, he argues, it also requires that the supplier and OEM align those expectations with what is possible.

Those expectations, says Andrew Poliak, Automotive Segment manager, QNX Software Systems (Ottawa, Canada; www.qnx.com), are changing the relationship between OEMs and Tier 1s, and being driven, in part, by rapidly changing technology. "We know of CPUs for these reconfigurable displays that are using architectures and chip sets at least as high-end as those found in premium infotainment systems," he says, "because of the need for rendering the relevant information in layers when it's needed." Increasingly, OEMs are overlaying user interfaces with brand-specific cues that formerly were handled by suppliers. This is due in part to the recognition that an exceptional experience has the power to endear a customer to a particular brand. "Because there is a ton of interaction necessary between them," says Poliak, "there will be more of a defined line as to where the OEM contributes its intellectual property, and what building blocks the Tier 1 give them to run it on." For the OEMs this means adding value in those areas-look, feel, usability, function-that are more difficult for competitors to duplicate.

A major problem facing both OEMs and Tier 1s, however, is the effect wireless connectivity will have on the whole process. "Once you have a pipe into the car," says Poliak, "the systems change dramatically, and this changes the verticals [silos] within each organization." Until recently, he asserts, most of the functions associated with non-traditional vehicular functions were lumped under the "Telematics" heading for the simple reason that no one really knew where else to put them. However, as JCI's Eich is quick to point out: "To use all of the benefits of the technology, you can't just mimic analog displays or have one group make all of the decisions. Everyone-engineers, product planners, suppliers, and consumers-has to be involved as early as possible if you are to have any hope of tapping into that emotional experience that has people not thinking with their wallets."