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Where is luxury HMI Design?

In almost all forms of transportation, and in all realms of transportation design, there is a spectrum of offer that reaches its peak and most expensive form with luxury. We have a first class airline cabin, the pullman carriage on some trains, the yacht in the boating world, and of course we have luxury cars. Vehicle design is at the heart of realising the luxury experience within each of these, and expressing it to their audiences too: the bleached teak decking of a yacht; the large chrome grille of the luxury car; the electric transformation of chair into bed within the airliner; the sumptuous furnishings in them all. Within cars specifically, every facet of design might contribute to its luxuriousness — proportions, form-language, lights, wheels, seats, dashboard, carpet, even roof-lining — it has been hard-won after decades of car design evolution. Except, we think, for HMI; we do not yet have “luxury HMI”, or at least not luxury screen-based HMI.

Luxury is a nebulous concept that varies according to the type of experience or product it describes. The luxuries of smoking a cigar, staying in a five star hotel room, eating a spoonful of caviar, wearing a pair of handmade shoes, or taking a drive in a Bugatti Chiron share little — the qualities of these luxury products are distinct to their genre. But there does tend to be some shared experiential elements and product qualities that go into luxury experiences and luxury items: the way that they are strong, distinct, special; that they tend to be sensory, particularly their materiality; how they exhibit refinement from effort and expertise that went into designing and making them; that they are rarified; that they are expensive. 

On the other hand, HMI is measured by its function: what it can do and how well it can do this — often how intuitively it can realise many novel tasks — neither of which are particularly luxurious qualities. If luxury does sometimes mean being the best in function (Rolls Royce lived by the claim ‘the best car in the world’ for decades) this alone is not sufficient a quality to elevate one HMI design over another in its luxuriousness.  

There are instances of the analogue elements of HMI exhibiting luxurious qualities, the chronograph watch is an unusually perfect exemplar. Within cars there are a spectrum of details that form part of their broader HMI that might contribute to their luxuriousness; from electrically popping out door handles, to the lustre of a paint finish; from fine leather clad steering wheel, to the precise heavy movement of the air vent flow controller. 

The Omega Speedmaster chronograph; a classic example of luxury HMI

But within the realm of non-analogue controlled, digital HMI, there is little evidence of luxurious experience or luxury product qualities. No trip-computer, no sat-nav, or screen based set of secondary controls are luxurious to behold or use: none are rarified, or sensory, or distinct, or even much refined. Maybe some have an occasional ‘wow’ innovation — an animated three-dimensional affect perhaps — or evidence of some facet of HMI that is properly clever or distinct that realises a little luxury-like quality, but these isolated exceptions tend to be ephemeral and few have much stature. 

The MBUX interface design of the Mercedes Benz A-class

There are many reasons for screen-based HMI not yet playing a part in the luxury world. HMI design tends to be shared across multiple products and brands — a Bentley with a Volkswagen, a Rolls Royce with a BMW, an A-class Mercedes Benz with an S-class — that belies an inherent high software R&D cost mixed with low hardware piece cost. So in their industrial application they are by definition the opposite of rarified or expensive luxury. Similarly the digital assistants of Alexa and Siri and Cortana sit within millions of affordable products negating the idea that a digital assistant might be a luxury; unless we reframe this as democratic (or egalitarian) luxury.   

Another reason is how the R&D process that sits behind in-car HMI design is almost wholly focused on the prosaic performance, not emotive, engagement — functionality remains the battlefield for what is still a nascent area of design. The physicality of a TFT screen also precludes much sensory materiality to engage with luxuriously…  

Maybe by definition of its egalitarianism, its necessary focus on function, and the limitation of a screen as the touch-point, the digital realm of HMI may never be truly luxurious. 

But we think that there are avenues that modern HMI can advance in luxuriousness, and that luxury brands might design brand specific HMI that contributes to a luxury experience for their customers. Broadly, these potential directions sit within a synaesthetic amplification of the screen interaction experience with gesture and audio, and with personalisation that goes beyond (or more specifically: around) the AI based baby-steps in this area.  

Fundamentally luxury is something that must have a truth to it and be valued by those who understand luxury — even if it does centre on an experience with a screen. For luxury to be realised in car HMI design it must be consciously sought with a robust luxury design strategy in place. Luxury will always be hard won, particularly in HMI design.