Bentley holographic butler.jpg

Why the in-car Virtual Assistant Avatar presents a huge design opportunity

For over a hundred years people have become accustomed to talking on the phone — to talking with someone who is remote and who we cannot see.  Similarly we have gotten used to the disembodied speaking and singing voices we listen to on the radio and playback devices. And now we are becoming accustomed to speaking with machines: the rate of adoption of Virtual Personal Assistants as a new form of interface is the fastest in history — in less than ten years they have come to be on over half a billion devices, they are making unprecedentedly fast inroads into our homes, and are already available in many cars (notably with the MBUX from Mercedes Benz and Live Cockpit from BMW).  But speaking without seeing someone's face is not wholly natural.  When we are with friends or colleagues we really do want to look at them when we talk.  There is also an increasing number of people who default to video calls on their phones, particularly teenagers.  Yet despite the ever more human-like ways our AI powered Virtual Personal Assistants talk with us, few have any tangible form of avatar.  Except this is beginning to change, and we think this is opening the door on a huge design opportunity… 

In the groundbreaking film 2001 Space Odyssey, the most famous character is the sentient computer Hal that controls the space ship central to the storyline.  Hal talks with the astronauts aboard the ship, but has no visual form; his male voice and name is not belied by a physical or graphical representation.  Fifty years later, we look back at Hal as prescient of the speaking Virtual Personal (or Digital) Assistants — VPAs — that have emerged in recent years; notably Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google’s Assistant.  They, like Hal, all talk to us in a way approximating a sentient human, but present no avatar; they are invisible humanoids — and maybe their sophisticated human-like speech enables them to more closely attain a human-like identity undiminished by a poor representation of an animated face… 

But having some animated facial representation of a VPA has the potential to significantly elevate and change the relationship with the user.  As animals we are innately bound to engage with and infer meaning from a face and its expressions —and that both magnifies the value we take from the dialogue, and from the relationship we have with the entity behind it.  Having a visual representation for a VPA also presents a significant design opportunity: to realise a specific character that literally personifies the VPA brand and thus becomes a new and powerful part of defining, delivering, developing, and defending the equity of that brand.

Yet what form might designers create for a VPA?  The precedents again come from the world of film in the range of animated depictions of fictional characters that sit either on the bandwidth between the simplest cartoon to an animatronic alien creature, or perhaps more pertinently that sit within the spectrum of sci-fi robot to android: from Star Wars’ R2D2 or BB-8, through Metropolis’s Maria, to Ex Machina’s Kyoko.  Beyond the level of fidelity, and the degree to which the face is human-like, there is then also the nature of the character — and the spectrum of expressions that its animated form might show according to the dialogue it is having with the user.  Then there is also the way in which this character and its behaviour should be congruent with the brand and with the customer relationship, which is a huge challenge considering the variety of customers. 

There are already some in-car VPAs that have some form of animated face; both graphical 2D and 3D animations on a screen and even in physical form — from Nio’s Nomi that depicts a minimalist representations of a face icon both on static screen and on its robot head atop of the dashboard of the ES8 and ES6, to the cartoon-style full body of a “hot a Japanese school girl” (sic) in holographic form of the Xiaomi VPA that sits atop of the dashboard the Bestune T77.

Nomi in the Nio ES8
Nomi in Nio ES8.jpg
Xiaomi VPA in the Bestune T77
Bestune T77 .jpg

And it seems very unlikely that we will not soon see more human-like representations, and more complete VPA characters with higher levels of fidelity — Bentley’s holographic butler concept from three years ago (main image,above) alluded to one of the few western brands’ exploration in this area.  But whilst there is clearly much to gain from fostering a closer and more emotive relationship with the user through a more tangible VPA presence, safety, and specifically distraction from driving, will be a major factor affecting the scopes for development in this area — potentially these visual manifestations of AI might come to life only when the car is stationary and on remote devices.

Given that the rate of VPA development and adoption is unprecedented, that they will be enablers in cars more so than arguably any other sphere (and that the barriers to their use in a car are perhaps smaller than anywhere else also) we think that the in-car VPA is going to be big.  With strong value in realising unique avatars — brand specific animated facial representations — of these systems, there is also a huge design opportunity here.