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Microsoft's Surface table-top computer is bulky, but its human-machine interface is likely to change the way people interact with their vehicles in the future.

Sony will begin selling 11-in. OLED televisions later this year. OLED enables thinner screen design with better contrast than LED displays.

Insider: Scratching the Surface

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas can best be described as a mind-blowing experience.

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas can best be described as a mind-blowing experience. Millions of square feet are covered by televisions, radios, robots, cell phones, MP3 players, and video games galore…and that’s just the stuff I can remember off the top of my head. At first glance, it may seem easy to simply write off the CES as nothing more than a gadget show, something that has little to do with the automobile. If that’s the way you perceive things, you better update your resume or think about taking that buyout because these two worlds are about to collide in a major way.

There’s little doubt OEMs and suppliers were caught off guard when it came to the popularity of the iPod and other devices that have now invaded the car with full force. Failure to identify the next big trends will likely leave some automakers on the sidelines of consideration, particularly for tomorrow’s tech-savvy shoppers. There were a number of things that kept getting my attention while walking the show floor, many of which could have an impact on the vehicles of tomorrow. Here’s a couple that stood out:

The Microsoft Surface. If you’ve never heard of this product before, familiarize yourself with it quickly. This is the single piece of technology most OEM and supplier insiders say is likely to change the way folks interact with everything in their daily lives, including the automobile, and I don’t doubt it. Surface is basically a large touch screen computer that’s comparable to the size of a coffee table. Who wants a computer that big, you ask? Before jumping to conclusions, you need to understand what surface can do and how it changes the debate when it comes to human-machine interfaces (HMIs). Using a stylus or paint brush, you can draw on the entire surface of Surface and, through the use of RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips or other tagging technology, you can lay your cell phone, PDA or laptop on the top of Surface and “grab” the image and send it to your phone without using a mouse or keyboard. In the future, when you buy a new product, the manufacturer could imbed an RFID into the operating manual, which when set on Surface could immediately connect you with a webpage to access additional information, or provide you with updated information at an instant. Automakers can imbed their product brochures with RFIDs and when the customer drops the brochure on Surface it can bring up videos and images of the vehicle instantaneously. Put your digital camera on the Surface and your images are automatically downloaded to Surface, where they can be tossed around from person to person, deleted or copied to another camera, all with simple hand movements. This could be a game changer.

Vehicle interior designers will need to pay careful attention to the HD television revolution, especially the consumer electronics industry’s embrace of organic light emitting diodes. Unlike LEDs, OLEDs do not require backlighting because they are emissive devices, which means they emit light rather than modulate transmitted or reflective light. They are thinner than LED systems and require less power, all while offering better picture clarity—contrast ratio is rated at up to 1,000,000:1, compared to 10,000-15,000:1 for LCD screens, according to Sony. This is the next frontier in home television technology and will likely progress into instrument clusters and navigation systems, especially those designed for 3D applications. OLEDs will also open up new opportunities for slim center stacks and other innovative design touches that will result in new storage options.

These are just two of the most obvious technologies that are likely to impact automotive interior and HMI design in the coming years. Beyond these, the sky is the limit and the CES proves that innovations continue to progress at a mind-numbing pace. Unless automakers are willing to make the investment for rapid product freshenings that take advantage of these future technologies, they will remain laggards. It’s time stop pinching the nickel and start investing in features that will leave customers in awe…features that can only be developed in the consumer electronics arena.  

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