Monday, October 17, 2011

There's a time and place for touchscreens.

Back in the late 90's, Phillips experimented with the Pronto remote control for home entertainment. It was a pure touchscreen device that was infinitely programmable and it bombed.
The reason? In the dark, people didn't want to look down at a glowing screen and navigate pages of menus and icons to find a function. They wanted to reach out, grab the remote and feel for the 'volume up' button. Removing the tactile feedback of physical buttons was a mistake that has since been borne out by successive universal remotes spawning more and more buttons and less and less touch screen functionality.

Car manufacturers have headed off down the same path now by putting more and more touchscreens in their vehicles, and less and less physical controls. The MyFord Touch is a key example of this. Gone are the buttons on the centre console, instead replaced with a single touchscreen display. Want to change the fan speed on the a/c?
Assuming you can read the display (most touchscreens have a hard time competing with the sun - a light source 168,000 times brighter), you need to navigate the menu to the comfort controls, then find the fan speed icons. When you do find them, there's no tactile feedback so then you have to check visually, again, to see if you actually did anything. All this time, your eyes are off the road, both in terms of direction (what you're looking at) and focus (looking up close, instead of far off).

Performing this sort of routine on an iPad whilst sitting on your sofa is mindless, but being forced to do it whilst driving is just poor design. I know where all the controls are for my a/c and audio system on my VW by touch. I don't need to look at them to operate them - I can just reach out and use the relevant control without taking my eyes off the road.

I think Ford realised this early on and attempted to rectify the situation by adding voice recognition, but it's a multi-step process. Push a button. Wait for the audio confirmation. Say "climate control". Wait for the audio confirmation. If you got it right, say "fan speed up". Wait for the audio confirmation. This assumes the voice recognition system can understand you in the first place - the slightest hint of an accent and you'll spend all day arguing with your car.

Probably because they also realised voice recognition was a dud, Ford added a third option - steering wheel controls that operate certain key functions - fan up and down, temperature up and down for example. And here is where they got back on the right track - physical, tactile buttons that you can use without needing to look at them. Why not skip the whole touchscreen and voice control nonsense and just use the buttons in the first place?

I'm not being a luddite here - I love technology - I'm simply saying that building a system so complicated that you need to take your eyes off the road to use it makes no sense. It's contributing to distracted driving.

I've not been so embarrassed as I was a few weeks ago when a colleague of mine was trying to use the system in his Ford Fusion to perform the simplest task. We got all the way to our destination without him figuring out how to turn off the air recirculation. As the passenger, I could see it clear as day. But I wasn't driving.
Do you really want to be presented with this amount of visual information overload just to set the damn ventilation system?


Ars.Gladius said...

How can they not see this as a bad thing? I mean really, distracting the driver to the point that they are NOT concentrating on driving can not possibly be good.

More to the point, with the number of distracted driving laws that are popping up, that recognize that fidling with something and not actively concentrating on driving tends to lead to, you know, crashes.

Even Jeremy Clarkson was whining about BMW and their iDrive system being useless to do the most basic tasks, and that wasn't even a full blown touch screen.

The worst I have seen was a driver with a bloody portable GPS mounted right on the windshield, smack dab in the middle of his field of vision!

Micah Cameron said...

I could not agree more. Last week I had to drive a first generation Toyota Prius and I almost had an accident trying to turn the air-con off. Awful, awful idea.

Paul said...

Mainly agree with you here. I did have one of the new Dodge Chargers as a rental a couple of months ago and it had full touch screen center console. Pretty much everything was controlled via this screen. I thought it was very easy to use and intuitive but, like you say, I was taking my eyes off the road to adjust the radio/AC etc.
Not on topic, but I've also had an SS Camaro as a rental and it had a heads up display which was bloody brilliant (even though it was a Chevy!). Speed, temps, radio, fuel were all able to be displayed/changed via the steering wheel controls.