Diesel News’ man in Europe, Brian Weatherley, left a recent Mercedes-Benz FutureLab seminar with a spinning head, wondering how exactly do you go about creating the dashboard of the future?
Standing in front of a collection of computer screens and inter-active video-gaming paraphernalia ,Alexander Graf from Mercedes’ department of Digital Graphic Design Realisation explains: “At the beginning we have an initial draft [sketch] version for the UI, so basically we try to comply with the legal requirements, the specification, what needs to be shown on a display, and how can we place and position things on it…then using Photoshop we make a 2-D picture of that.”
However, as 2-D pictures are not particularly flexible from a designer’s perspective, from those 2-D renderings a more dynamic 3-D on-screen version is created. Which is where the computer artists and animators come in. “In a 3-D version you get an idea of the two tubes [dials], but also the truck and the street,” says Graf. “In 3-D it’s very flexible what you can see; regardless of the size of the screen or the aspect ratio, in the end I can use the design for several generations of UI.”
Using a ‘Here’s one I did earlier’ example, Graf showed us an attractive, main dash display with two digital dials (more accurately ‘quadrants’) consisting of a conventional rev counter and speedo on either side of the screen. The central area, however, was filled by a stylised animated view of the road ahead (like a sat-nav) that disappears into an artificial horizon.
Meanwhile, Graf reports that the next step “Is to see what the UI looks like when it’s moving, because it’s not just static. The speed and rpm indicators are in motion and sometimes we have simulations to give us an idea of how the pointer moves in the dial, whether it’s readable, if there’s too much distraction, is the contrast OK? Could the centre section also be inter-active? Does it show ‘reality’ out there?”
The 3-D landscape with its animated ‘rolling’ view of the road within the centre of the screen is undoubtedly one of the more engaging features, not least as it replicates in a graphic form what a driver sees through the windscreen, but with some subtle additions. For example, it can simulate a vehicle passing the truck, gradually appearing beside it on the screen before accelerating away towards the horizon. It’s a neat trick, but one with a useful purpose as those animated vehicles could form part of a blind-spot detection system, alerting a driver to their proximity.
But why animate things? “Sometimes it’s good to see the vehicle in front of you moving,” reckons Graf, before adding “if you work with that you get many new ideas.” One of which is a traffic-sign ‘recognition ‘assist’, whereby approaching signs (for example showing a reduction in the speed limit) are flagged-up to the driver in the animated landscape as the truck approaches them. ‘So what?’ I hear you say, ‘the driver sees them anyway.’ That’s true, but the beauty of the animated road is that it continues to show the driver the highlighted sign on the screen, even once it’s been passed, so it can’t be forgotten or ignored.
An equally-intriguing element of the digital dash is that, in Graf’s words, “We not only have intelligence here, but emotion too.” A perfect example of that is the use of different colours surrounding the horizon on the animated road. A graduated ‘cool’ blue tinge around it indicates there’s nothing nasty up-ahead, helping to keep a driver calm and relaxed. But change the background colour to red and you’re immediately flagging-up that there’s an approaching hazard. Once negotiated, the blue background returns, allowing the driver to ‘stand-easy’ again, whilst still being alert. For me, it’s a fascinating proposition with real potential.
Naturally, says Graf, the secret of good digital design is to not overload the driver with signals. “We don’t want to have too much distraction. It [the system] has to be double-checked with engineers, and our functional colleagues. This is how we approach the design concept.”