The project described here is a prototype of an interactive environment for vehicles’ cockpit. Such a responsive environment aims to create a more natural and physical engagement between a vehicle and its driver. The environment is composed of a web-based application that analyzes the user’s presence and speech, and a physical shape-shifting device. When the user enters the vehicle’s cockpit, the system recognizes its presence and allows the vehicle to communicate with the user. Such communication takes a physical form. A shape-shifting device is installed near the user’s seat. Depending on different speech commands, the device assumes a corresponding shape.
This project was developed as a proposal for a new type of interactive experience for cockpits (November 2019).
Shape-shifting devices can provide several potential benefits.
First, they can provide both visual and haptic cues in a unique element. A specific shape (which is already familiar to the user) embodies a specific function and vice versa. In this way, the function can be understood by either touching it or looking at it, or both.
Second, instead of relying on different physical elements (a handbrake, a gear-shifter) a shape-shifting device can unite all of them in one, and provide the corresponding affordances desired by the user. Being programmable, the shapes presented through the device can be customized. A unification of functions and shapes in a single device can also help the creation of smaller vehicles’ cockpits since several physical elements (handbrake, armrest, gear-shifter) can be substituted with a single element.
Third, providing changes of state in a physical way may help to create a more direct and ’visceral’ connection between the driver and its vehicle. It can represent also a way to facilitate the change of ownership of the driving mode.
In the case of self-driving mode, the device can visualize (in a physical way) the internal state of the vehicle and its behavior. If the car is accelerating the device will move faster, otherwise if decelerating will move slower. This will provide a direct and intuitive way to understand motion and force since the user can still touch the device. If the vehicle is in an autonomous driving mode, the driver may want to relax. By pronouncing the corresponding command, the vehicle will provide an armrest. If the situation is felt dangerous the driver can ask to have a handbrake ready for his hand.
There are five types of voice commands that create corresponding shapes:
• START: this command makes the device going into a ’waiting mode’.
• REST: this command makes the device taking the shape of an armrest, like ones you find on the right side of a driver’s seat.
• HANDBRAKE: the device takes the shape (and function) of a handbrake, which is usually on the right side of the driver’s seat.
• SHIFTER: with this command, the device changes its shape (and function) to assume the one of a gear-shifter. In this case, the driver is not passive but can take control of the act of driving.
• GO: with this command, the driver says to the main vehicle’s system to take control, which means going into an autonomous driving mode. Therefore, the device takes a shape similar to the one of the shifter, with the difference that now the device is active, and moves. The movement is synchronized with the vehicle speed and acceleration/deceleration. In this way, the user can see but also feel the exact activity of the vehicle (in the current prototype the movement is a pre-programmed animation).
It’s also possible to interact with the handbrake through touch.