Digital dash

25 January 2016

Project Dash is a collaboration between car company Mercedes-Benz and software development company The Foundry, which aims to achieve high-quality, real-time renderings for a better in-vehicle experience

Mercedes-Benz’s California offices

When automotive company Mercedes-Benz needed a way to support the efficient development and delivery of a next-generation digital user experience (UX) for its Concept IAA (Intelligent Aerodynamic Automobile) show car, it embarked on an innovative collaboration with The Foundry, a London headquartered software company, with offices in Manchester, Los Angeles and Silicon Valley.

What was needed was an advanced dashboard design for the Concept IAA, which changes shape at high speed, for better aerodynamics.

1:6 scale concept model of the Mercedes-Benz Concept IAA

As the car accelerates, a tail emerges, its fins flare and the grille changes shape. The idea was that these changes should be communicated to the driver via an advanced dashboard design.

The solution that the two companies came up with, code named Project Dash, for the first time connects a true UI/UX design tool with the in-car experience. In other words, what the software designer creates in their studio is identical to what the driver ends up experiencing in their vehicle.

Modo is used to create digital assets such as speedo graphics

Traditionally, the car interface design process is time consuming and costly. A designer will create an idea, which engineers then mock up and prototype, before the idea is adapted or scrapped, in favour of a better one. With multiple iterations the norm in this process, some good ideas can get lost or subtly altered along the way.

Project Dash, by contrast, has seen The Foundry develop a set of tools that Mercedes designers can use to develop a final product, with a complete set of specifications for engineers to use in their build.

Photorealistic renders from Modo to the dashboard, showing the vehicle’s changes in shape

The solution leverages proven 3D content and digital visualisation technology from The Foundry, existing Mercedes solutions and custom software development.

It enables Mercedes UX designers to explore, create and iterate faster, using high-quality content.

Project Dash also bridges the gap that often exists between designers, engineers and production teams, changing the way they communicate and iterate together, to deliver both creativity and business efficiency gains.

To help iterate more quickly, Mercedes and The Foundry developed a hardware solution to fast-test concepts

“At Mercedes-Benz, we strive to achieve the most beautiful and powerful driving experience for our customers,” says Sajjad Khan, vice president of digital vehicle & mobility at Daimler AG. “This extends to our in-vehicle display and, with our new show car, we revealed a quality of real-time rendering that was previously unattainable.”

“As there was no automotive technology in the market to do this, we’ve teamed up with The Foundry to bring, for the first time ever in automotive industry, Hollywood-quality visuals and imaging into the car.”

The Foundry explains the dash workflow

The main driver in the design process for the project with Mercedes was using the MODO 901 product. This, we decided, would help reduce development time and make the design for the car a reality.

Using the extensive MODO viewport meant that what we see inside the design environment is exactly the same as what the customer would see in their in-vehicle interaction environment.

The workflows shown demonstrate how, by having physical-based rendering and shading directly inside the design environment, you get real-time rendering happening in the viewport, too, with no time spent waiting for renders to complete.

This allowed us to transition from normal car development times to app development times.

Basically, you’re transitioning to an approach that makes it a lot faster to iterate the designs and get feedback on where it is right now.

Traditionally, a UI designer in the automotive industry might wait one to two months to get back their designs for a consumer display. Now, they can see it immediately, as they design it. That kind of instant feedback is what makes the design iteration cycle much shorter.

To my mind, lengthy design cycles are why the car industry has struggled to create more up-to-date UI displays.

The challenge of a long design cycle is that consumers tend to compare the UI they get in their car to the UI offered by apps on their smartphone. The car UI ends up looking pretty outdated by comparison.

So Mercedes-Benz is hoping that, by making that cycle much quicker, it can catch up with app-time development to deliver a more comparable customer experience in its cars.

Project Dash will enable faster and more frequent roll-out of updates and refinements to the UI/UX. With the advent of the driverless car, that’s what future drivers are going to expect to see inside their vehicles.

Yazan Malkosh, head of design, The Foundry

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