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Playing the HMI game: how will gaming tech shape the user experience?

Electric vehicles, ADAS and monetising the cloud all have one thing in common, suggests Epic Games’ Heiko Wenczel

How important is computer games technology to electric vehicles? The answer might surprise you, especially as it also involves that other great disruptor of this industry, the roadmap to autonomy.

When GM revealed its new all-electric Hummer, the supplier that was picked for special mention was Epic Games, developer and publisher of Fortnite, one of the world’s most popular online games. Epic’s Unreal Engine real-time graphics platform also powers the HMI (Human Machine Interface) in the new Hummer.

It would be easy to look at this and see a snappily designed, graphics-rich user interface that’s there to grab attention. And that’s certainly part of why games technology was chosen, with increasingly large screens providing vast, seamless surfaces for the designers’ creativity. But the benefit that GM chose to highlight was more strategic: an ability to quickly develop ways for new systems—in this case electrification—to communicate with the driver.

The technical roadmap for an HMI is surprisingly critical to the successful adoption not just of new vehicle technologies, but also of new revenue streams

Games technology solves several problems, the first of which is to work out how these new control areas should interact with the vehicle occupants. When you are deciding how to display information about state of charge and energy regeneration, or the location of hazards and the urgency of returning control to the driver, there are no decades of experience on which to call. Games engines provide new freedoms for designers searching for the most effective and most engaging ways to communicate this information and a fast, efficient way to build and test each option.

When one is chosen, the traditional development path is for engineers to code the software, leading to an iterative process in which designers and ergonomists review the system and engineers revise the code. Games developers work without these silos, so the best platforms are structured to allow designers to evolve the end product in real time, quickly and efficiently, while engineers get on with their day jobs.

But it isn’t just about new technologies: there is also the question of communicating brand values when your audience is used to consumer electronics with a much faster product refresh cycle. Stepping into your new car to find comic-book graphics hardly shouts ‘high-tech’.

Designers evolve the end product in real time, while engineers get on with their day jobs

One of the big German vehicle manufacturers, using the same technology platform, has recently committed to moving towards a single, company-wide vehicle model that begins its life with the earliest concepts and evolves seamlessly through engineering to marketing and manufacture, where the exact specification of the customers’ vehicles can be loaded into the HMI. When you glance down to see how your vehicle’s electrical system is harvesting energy as you slow down, it will be your actual vehicle, in the correct colour and trim, with the wheels you chose. When vehicle graphic rotates, instead of the huge cost of creating motion like a flip blook, the image will be recalculated in real time as it turns, providing designers with greater flexibility and visual quality.

Which brings us to the next big step: over the air updates and cloud-based services. The technical roadmap for an HMI is surprisingly critical to the successful adoption not just of new vehicle technologies, but also of new revenue streams. Like a mobile phone it is the gateway to additional services and personalisation, but in a vehicle it can be so much more sophisticated. How about an augmented reality experience that conveys interesting facts and stories about landmarks that are highlighted as you pass?

Three of the major industry disruptors—EV, ADAS and cloud-based services—will contribute more when implemented alongside a new generation of sophisticated HMI. The clue is in the name: Human Machine Interface. As vehicle technology and services evolve, the HMI is becoming the most powerful touch point between our customers and the products of our industry.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.

Heiko Wenczel is Director of Industry Management with Epic Games and Head of the company’s Detroit Laboratory, from where he leads an international team of automotive applications specialists

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