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LEAD Innovation Blog

Read our latest articles on innovation management and innovation in a wide range of industries.

Date: 07-Nov-2018
Posted by: Daniel ZAPFL

HMI: When man and machine get along blindly


Machines are becoming increasingly complex, intelligent and important to all of us. Whether and how well we get along with machines depends on the quality of the human-machine interface (HMI). Far away from switches, rotary knobs, touch screens and the like, developers are looking for new methods to improve understanding between man and machine. Read in this blog article how intelligent interfaces can increase safety when driving, why clothing plays an important role in communication with computers and how a sophisticated HMI solution saves costs in the company warehouse.

Our brains do the hardest work while driving a car. Because many tasks have to be completed at the same time: Determine the direction of travel, choose the appropriate speed, recognize obstacles and dangers and observe other road users in front of and behind your vehicle.

Many sources of distraction, such as a chatting passenger, annoying music from the car radio or a restless child in the back seat, make this task even more difficult. The number of these troublemakers has continued to increase in recent years: Just think of navigation devices and smartphones. Automobile manufacturers are also incorporating more and more functions into their products.

A lot doesn't help a lot

The driver must also operate and control this variety of options. The result: In the car of the present, it beeps, flashes, sounds and lights like never before. More and more displays, screens and touchscreens need at least a brief look or even a touch. But the trend towards the spaceship Enterprise has deadly side effects: Distraction or carelessness have become the number one cause of accidents in Austria.

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The automotive industry is becoming increasingly aware of this. Only recently, Erich Schöls, professor at the Faculty of Design at the University of Applied Sciences Würzburg Schweinfurt at the Interior Forum in Regensburg's Continental Arena, said with regard to the growing number of displays in cars: "Not much helps much". There are several concrete projects by Continental itself that anticipate this realization. 


Car draws the driver's attention

The Driver Focus Vehicle is designed to reduce the driver's distraction and thus prevent accidents. The vehicle is equipped with commercially available driving assistance systems such as lane keeping assistant, distance control cruise control and collision warning system. In addition to this, the developers at Continental have installed an LED strip light that covers the entire interior of the vehicle. A camera inside the vehicle is aimed at the driver's face. This allows the system to see how attentive the driver is and, above all, in which direction he is looking.


If a critical traffic situation should occur and the handlebars are distracted, the LED light strip leads its view in the direction of the source of danger. The Driver Focus Vehicle can signal how high the danger is by means of several colours. Incidentally, this development from Continental won the CAR HMI Concepts & System Award 2015 in the category "Most Innovative HMI Function". 


Machines "control" people

The development is actually reversed and shows a trend in the field of HMI: To improve mutual understanding, the machine controls the human being. And no longer just the other way around. While the Driver Focus Vehicle checks whether the driver is at all on the case, an Audi development is even exploring his state of mind. On the one hand, the Audi Fit Driver works with data supplied by smart watches or wearables. On the other hand, Audi Fit Driver also accesses information that the car itself provides thanks to the vehicle sensors.

Based on the driver's heart rate, skin temperature and driving style, as well as external conditions such as weather or traffic conditions, the system determines the driver's stress level. The car adjusts the climate settings or infotainment accordingly. Audi Fit Driver also gives tips for breathing exercises or advises breaks. Audi Fit Driver does not yet intervene in the direct control of the vehicle. However, this could very well be the case in a later expansion stage. Thanks to HMI, the machine often knows better what is good for people than the driver himself.

Simply put on your smartphone

While improving the HMI in cars is particularly about safety, textiles are about comfort. Developers are currently focusing in particular on clothing as a human-machine interface. Not surprisingly: after all, it usually comes with the wearer.

Already available is a glove that you don't have to take off when your phone rings and you want to answer it. Simply put your hand to your ear with outstretched thumbs and little fingers, as if you were really making a "phone call" gesture, and you are connected. The built-in battery lasts up to 6 hours. The gloves indicate an incoming call by flashing and vibrating. Practical if you have stowed your smartphone inaudibly and barely noticeably in a jacket pocket.


Guidance by vibration

An intelligent combination of existing, not new technologies, is also the belt that guides its wearer through unknown territory. The young designer Madeleine Cordier has developed an intuitive navigation device in her master thesis on product and interaction design. It consists of a waist belt and a smartphone with a special app. Using vibration on the belt, the system points the way, warns the wearer of storms and helps with information on nearby emergency shelters.


Smart Jeans from Google

Technical textiles can turn garments into a bridge for IT equipment. The Google Lab ATAP is working on a kind of trackpad to wear: In the Jacqard project, conductive threads are woven. The garment made from this fabric then serves as the user interface. Together with Levi's, Google plans to launch the smart jeans soon.

A shining example of an HMI solution in the warehouse

On the other hand, a solution for order picking that makes warehouse processes more efficient is already on the market. It comes from Kardex Remstar, one of the world's leading manufacturers of automated storage and retrieval systems. Using small lights, the system shows the warehouse worker exactly in which shelf he can find the product he is looking for. And it also checks whether the employee has put all orders together correctly. The advantage over conventional order picking is obvious: The employee is much faster and can find his way around the warehouse in a very short time. Also as a new employee, and also in the new warehouse. Both save costs. Intelligent HMI concepts can also do that.



Switches, levers, buttons, or keyboards - for many years there were very few channels through which people gave commands to the machine. Now that machines are getting smaller, smarter and more complex, developers are also considering alternative human-machine interfaces. HMI that the user consciously communicates to the machine through gestures or even unconsciously - for example through a high pulse or an averted gaze. This diversity of possible ways to communicate with each other certainly makes the relationship between man and machine more intimate. It may also merge and become the brain-computer interface. This special type of HMI could then be used to control the computer with the power of thought. Or the smartphone can detect the risk of a stroke at an early stage.

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Daniel ZAPFL

Born in Graz, Austria. After positions as project manager & head of innovation of the project management at LEAD Innovation, Daniel Zapfl has been responsible for the success of the innovation projects of our innovation partners since January 2018.

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