How do you design the user interface for one of the world's most desirable objects?
When Aston Martin asked us to develop an infotainment system for the One-77, a limited edition supercar like no other, we had a big but beautiful challenge on our hands.
The One-77 is a staggering combination of art, science and engineering. In the words of Marek Reichman, director of design at Aston Martin, its combination of “power, brutality, grace and elegance” is a 3D expression of the company's ethos.
Only 77 will ever be made, costing over £1m each. The car's outer body is handcrafted from aluminium, and rests on a carbon fibre chassis made from 3,800 laser-cut segments. Beneath the bonnet is a 7.3 litre V12 engine which chief engineer Chris Porritt describes as “beyond fast”. With a top speed of around 220 mph. and 0-60 in under 3.7 seconds, he's not wrong.
While this supercar was still on the drawing board, we had already worked collaboratively with Aston Martin and Microsoft to integrate numerous technologies and design functionalities.
Our work started in 2006, at which time we were collaborating with Microsoft and Aston Martin to determine what the ultimate user experience looks like. We developed a proof of concept which centred around a 360-degree experience - connecting the user online, in-store and in-car. This concept outlined the bulk of the exciting work we had ahead of us.
Supporting a seamless driving experience
For new prospects, we developed the ambitious Silverlight Car Configurator online tool, giving customers a photo-realistic opportunity to customise the full interior spec for the car of their dreams. This was developed using Microsoft's Silverlight and DeepZoom platforms and allowed users to zoom into “Giga-pixel images for a truly immersive brand experience”.
This configurator concept also included social and sharing functionality. Customers understandably wanted to showcase the car to their friends and, more importantly, it enabled them to send their configured car to a chosen dealer.
In store, dealers made instant changes to a customer's specification through the WPF Dealer Configurator tablet app as they walked around discussing the finer details. This seamless buying experience culminated in a huge 3D plasma image of the final cut, developed using Xbox's programming language, which enabled customers to see their car in its full glory.
And the icing on the cake? A Microsoft Surface multi-touch table that allowed the customer and dealer to truly touch the car's configuration.
One for the road
In car, we explored a ‘Track pack concept” that allowed owners to record their track races through built-in cameras which synced to PCs and mobile devices. Budding Schumachers could also compare their laps with other drivers through Microsoft's Virtual Earth. This proof of concept was featured as the keynote at a Vegas design conference and used as the basis for the final in-car system and supporting website.
Our groundbreaking infotainment system was designed and built to adapt to all Aston Martin vehicles. Aside from digital stereo options, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) we designed an interface to include:
Personalised settings for individual drivers including valet parking restrictions.
A search function that finds music from the onboard CD changer, hard drive or any device connected to the USB inputs.
Built-in WiFi and 3G, paid for by Aston Martin, allowing drivers to back up and synchronise all onboard data with a home or office server.
A Sat Nav with maps optimised for day or nighttime driving, ability to share routes and pin points of interest.
Two high-spec PCs, one running Windows CE (for fast start-up automotive systems) and the other running Windows Vista (for infotainment and less time-critical systems).
The One-77's dashboard defined our approach, in more ways than one. As our MD Paul Bishop remembers, “the dashboard is so deep that you can't physically reach the screen while driving the car”.
Along with Aston Martin CEO Ulrich Bez's aversion to fingerprints, this ruled out a touchscreen. Instead, we went with a 4-way joystick supported by a home and back button fixed into the lower dashboard. These controls connect to a hybrid XP/Vista system that's display screen pops up when the car starts.
“ We built a visual and tactile language that was highly branded, very Aston Martin”
Paul Bishop, Managing Partner
Adapting design for future diversity
Aston Martin actively encourages its customers to choose from a huge range of trim options (and 2.5 billion different colour combinations, no less). As a result, the dashboard's hardware needs to compliment numerous shades and textures. According to Paul, “This approach extended through to the icons we designed for the screen, and an overall approach that felt quite crafted, honed and engineered.”
Aston Martin prides itself on the craftsmanship of its workforce. “Their engineers spend ages damping the switch so when you turn it around it has the perfect level of resistance,” says Benedict Ireland, our Head of UX. “It was the same with our work. For example, we worked with their creative director to make sure that every single roll-over [screen transition] had the same level of effort and attention paid to it.”
The bigger picture involved approaching in-car systems like an operating system, capable of being upgraded over time. EU law states that car manufacturers must make parts available for at least 10 years after they stop manufacturing specific models so, according to Paul, “we were effectively taking an approach which resembles that of a platform, or an upgradeable operating system. Our design was developed for the long term.”
We also faced extensive technical constraints. “There were lots of technology challenges,” says Benedict. “With a car, you have to work with very specific automotive standards, many of them enforced by legislation. One of our more challenging tasks was to find large capacity ruggedised automotive-grade solid state hard drives. “The only place we could source these was NASA.”
Getting under the hood to understand a brand
As part of the project, we worked at Aston Martin's plant in Gaydon, West Midlands, for 6 months. “We had access to every part of the business,” says Paul. “They brought us several cars to examine, dozens of infotainment systems and a large amount of hardware, which we discussed incorporating. It was very much a collaboration between us, the interior and exterior designers and the engineers.”
This is Paul's preferred way of working. “Agencies like to sit in their studios and they expect the clients to come to them,” he says. “But if you're on site, you pick up on vibes on conversations. You get to understand the brands you're working for. On site, you can start to understand that brand from an internal perspective as well.” With so many premium products and boys' toys at his disposal, it's no surprise he likes to get out of the office once in a while.
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