Virtual road trip: Mercedes-Benz is bringing the joy of discovery back into the car
Stuttgart/Berlin. How will the automobile of the future become a means of transport between reality and cyberspace? This is one of the questions which Mercedes-Benz discussed with engineers, designers, scientists and journalists at this year’s Future Talk event. After Utopia and Robotics, the third Mercedes-Benz Future Talk was dedicated to virtual reality: the virtualisation of the vehicle interior as a new perception horizon in the mobility of the 21st Century.
Under the motto “Going Virtual – the Automotive Experience of the Future,” representatives from Mercedes-Benz discussed the role of virtuality in the digitised automobile with journalists from various media and interdisciplinary experts. The experts at this year’s Future Talk included Anke Kleinschmit, head of corporate research at Daimler, Ralf Lamberti, responsible for User Interaction and Connected Car at Daimler, Cade McCall, a psychologist at the Max-Planck Institute for cognitive and neuro-sciences in Leipzig, Alexander Mankowsky, future researcher at Daimler and Prof. Erich Schöls, interaction designer and scientific head of the Steinbeis research centre for design and systems in Würzburg.
Virtuality as a major aspect of digitisation
For Anke Kleinschmit, virtualisation of the automobile is an important part of the digitisation strategy at Daimler: “Virtuality makes in-vehicle digitisation directly perceivable. This makes it one of the key technologies for the mobility of the 21st Century. The car of the future will also open up a virtual space for its driver, becoming a “third place” between the home and the workplace.” Kleinschmit has many years of experience in the company as a development engineer, and has headed the research department since early 2015. She sees two important areas of research: “Firstly research into innovation, and secondly research into trends and the future. The latter provides the foundations for future innovations, so to speak.”
This means that the future of mobility is not only being researched from a technological point of view, but also in sociological, cultural and philosophical terms. Above all, we must look at the role of the automobile in society, says Kleinschmit.When it comes to the future of mobility, we asks ourselves: what are people’s needs and wishes? And how can we meet these? This approach is fruitful: in 2014 Mercedes-Benz was the automobile manufacturer with the most patent applications. In the 2015 AutomotiveINNOVATIONS Award, Mercedes-Benz received an award as the most innovative premium brand.
The virtualised automobile as a living space of the future
At the beginning of this year, at the CES show in Las Vegas, Mercedes-Benz presented some initial ideas to show how comprehensively in-vehicle virtualisation can be realised – the F 015 Luxury in Motion provides an outlook on the virtualised interior and the possibilities it opens up. The car becomes a mobile part of the Internet in which many interior surfaces act as a graphic interface and source of information. For Kleinschmit this clearly points the way forward: “The car of the future will become a mobile living space which can connect travellers to their surroundings: social, informative, anecdotal. The surroundings can tell the traveller stories or act as a playing surface. This concept is by no means new. The game “I spy with my little eye” has long helped children to shorten long journeys. It combines topography with movement to create an exciting game. I can imagine many new applications with virtualisation. Virtual and physical reality blend together playfully.”
At the Future Talk Mercedes-Benz has shown exemples of the various possbilities in a three-dimensional simulation: Passengers can see their current surroundings in daylight, even though they are travelling at night, or they can make advertising billboards and noise protection embankments disappear for an unobstructed view of their urban or rural surroundings. They can travel in time during a journey, and view the Brandenburg Gate, for example, not in the here and now, but as it was on 9 November 1989. If required they can bring information about interesting buildings or current trends in a city and amongst its inhabitants into the car, obtain a bird’s-eye view of a city or make a virtual switch-over into another vehicle to have a look around at the destination. And those who wish to work, take a break or hold a relaxed conversation might choose some purely virtual backdrop which echoes their present mood.
This blending effect of the virtual and physical reality is also recognised by Cade McCall, a psychologist and research team leader in the department of social neuro-sciences at the Max-Planck Institute for cognitive and neuro-sciences in Leipzig: “It is initially unimportant to the brain whether it is processing actual or virtual information. If the corresponding conditions are met, we easily perceive virtual environments as real and enter into them.”
McCall explained virtuality from the standpoint of psychologists, describing how the human brain reacts to virtual impulses: “The brain is constantly gathering experiences. Virtuality engages with this process and provides us with elements of an augmented or alternative world. In the car of the future this immersion will ensure that the driver is fully integrated into the virtuality of the vehicle interior. Natural interaction with the surroundings gives rise to a realistic feeling of belonging to an artificially created reality.”
Returning to adventure
This aspect is among the major achievements of future technologies for future researcher Alexander Mankowsky: “Today the windscreen is our window on the world, and its frame defines the limits of our vision of the road ahead. Autonomous driving functions will widen this view. With reference to the topography we are travelling through, we will link Big Data with information sensed by the vehicle to create a highly rewarding travel experience. The road can be transformed just as the driver prefers at the time – an anonymous transport zone becomes a multimedia encyclopaedia, a time machine, a place to dream or somewhere to actively communicate with friends.”
Above all, the futurologist expects that virtualisation will lead to a new spirit of adventure: “The outside world is made transparent in time and space. I can access information, enhance reality at will, change perspective or immerse myself in dream worlds. The focus is on the personalisation of time and space, and on social interaction as a key human need.”
Professor Erich Schöls of the Steinbeis research centre for design and systems also argued in this direction. He referred to the previous history of such experiences. Enhanced or completely generated perception models are not really new. The first trailblazing experiments in this direction go back to the 1950s, when pioneers such as Fred Waller, Morton Heilig or Ivan Sutherland began investigating stereoscopic images, interaction models and scientific questions on the effects of reality simulations.
Mobility in cyberspace
According to Schöls, in recent years hardware has become widely available which allows a far-sighted view of what we can expect in the foreseeable future: “Virtual perceptive environments that take the human consciousness into dimensions which previously only existed in our imagination or dreams. Even today, the level of immersion is so high in some applications that an almost natural interaction by humans with the generic, artificial backdrop is possible. In the process more and more senses are included, and increasingly natural interaction models are implemented. The path from reality to the virtual world is fluid.”
However, Schöls also drew attention to the acceptance barriers that virtual technologies have still to overcome: “Although extended reality applications are increasingly establishing themselves in industry, culture and society, many people still feel slightly unsure about immersion into completely artificial environments.” The professor is however sure that these hurdles will be overcome as time passes: “This will soon change with increasingly useful applications and further technological improvements. People will come to appreciate cyberspace as a useful and interesting enrichment with enormous potentials.”
Anke Kleinschmit also sees this aspect as a trailblazing innovation with respect to mobility: “You are no longer just driving your car within the road infrastructure, but also in cyberspace – the cybernetic space where people’s mobility can be extended, enhanced and improved by technical means.”
Besides futurology, there are further departments at Daimler concerned with bringing virtuality into the vehicle of the future – for example at Digital Graphic & Corporate Design under Prof. Klaus Frenzel, or the development department Digital Vehicle & Mobility under Sajjad Khan. But the focus at Daimler is always on one thing: the specific benefits that a technology brings for people.