mobility

We’re Talking Mobility Innovation at CES

There Were Some Amazing (and Some Strange) Mobility Offerings at #CES2020. We Chatted about Them.

January 14, 2020
CEShero

What happens at CES does not stay at CES. The products, the concepts, and the hype swirling around the event traveled far and wide—many thanks to the hashtag #CES2020—and this past Friday they sojourned all the way to our Boston studio. We convened a panel of innovators to reflect on the coolest, weirdest, and most interesting developments CES had to offer in the mobility space. We had to kibitz about Segway’s race-car wheelchair; chuckle at the Sony (Sony?!) concept car; squint at Bosch’s virtual visor; imagine the sky filled with air taxis; speculate on the strategy behind an Avatar-branded automobile; admire the biomimicry of the Fisker Ocean; and marvel at Delta’s amazing Parallel Reality flight board. Enough with prefatory matters—let’s get this conversation on the road…

Our panelists (left to right, above): David Rose, Futurist; Margo Dunlap, NXT Trend Research Group Lead; Dustin Boutet, Travel & Hospitality Lead; and Ken Gordon, Principal Communications Specialist.

The Segway S-Pod

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpMkmA7YM9o&feature=emb_logo

Dustin Boutet

This takes Segways and makes them even nerdier, if that's possible.

Margo Dunlap

There were lots of takes on Twitter about how it looks just like the WALL-E chair, and I also overheard people talking about that in the office, too. But I think that there are a lot of benefits for accessibility, and it would be a shame to let that fear of a WALL-E future overshadow the accessibility gains.

It also made me think about how unsafe a lot of our last-mile solutions are. People are dying on scooters, more than they should be. Maybe I'm making an assumption here, but it looks safer for that—basically short urban trips.

Dustin Boutet

I was drawing parallels to the Herman Miller chair that we had developed a number of years ago. Margo, you mentioned the accessibility aspect. Getting in and out of the S-Pod seats—for people who might have mobility issues, this could really open up a lot of areas of travel for them and make it easier for them to get around. I think it cuts both ways, though. Will these replace the grocery store carts that everybody's driving around in and kind of perpetuate this obesity epidemic? Because you don't need to walk as much as you used to and the last mile becomes the last lazy mile.

Ken Gordon

I think of the emotional change that someone who had to be in a wheelchair would feel once they're in this. The racing-car-ification of the wheelchair. Making it an alternate experience. It's a hell of a lot cooler than being on one of those grocery cart things, for an older person, for example.

Margo Dunlap

It’s got kind of a Professor X vibe to it.

The Segway S-Pod has kind of a Professor X vibe to it.

We have a NXT trend around the evolution of the vehicle. It’s about how both form and function of consumer-oriented vehicles are changing pretty rapidly, from scooters to rickshaws to… blimps are on the horizon. There are a lot of really different-looking vehicles at CES this year, and this Segway S-Pod is pretty unique.

David Rose

Ken, I love what you said about the race-car aesthetic. It does evoke that. Makes it look less like a wheelchair and look more like something that’s more desirable. It's definitely a lean-back experience. If you think about a bike, a scooter—something where you're in control and steering as a lean-forward experience—and compare it to the S-Pod, this definitely seems like a recliner. I like the idea of the wind kind of blowing back your hair.

Dustin Boutet

Being reclined, though: Does that suggest less control over the experience? It does hint at more autonomous-type behaviors. Because even the posture in which you would you be sitting in it suggests to me that you would have less ability to control the direction or the speed.

David Rose

I guess when you say “lean back,” it does suggest a more passive entertain-me attitude rather than lean-forward agency posture.

Sony Vision-S Concept Car

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfmAe3FTCr8

Ken Gordon

One of the things they talk about in reviews of this is the 33 sensors in this car. Is that a lot of sensors? How many sensors should we have on these cars?

Dustin Boutet

Reminds me of the megapixel race that we had years ago. It was a race to see who had the most megapixels, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how many megapixels—or sensors—you have. It's: “What's the quality of the experience? What’s the quality of the end driving experience for this?” So, I think they might be attacking it in the wrong way.

David Rose

At the Frankfurt Auto Show, Mercedes showed an autonomous taxi that had hundreds of sensors and fully spinning LIDAR in all corners of the car, with blobby appendages on all four corners and then another blob on top. So, I don't think they're going to win the sensor race.

And did having all of those sensors make you feel more, or less safe? When you're getting into something that requires all these things sticking off of it, it feels more like the Skynet future than kind of the future that I really want to step into.

David Rose

To trust an autonomous car, you kind of want it to look exotic and bizarre and require more armature, in order to gain your trust.

Dustin Boutet

Maybe that is the next step. Yeah, it could be the ugly next step to get us there and gain the trust, and then those type of technologies are integrated and become invisible.

Margo Dunlap

I did not have a take on this at all. I really don't care [laughter].

Dustin Boutet

That is a take [laughter].

David Rose

What does the dashboard have that's unique in terms of its interaction?

Dustin Boutet

They’re doing the full Byten approach, where it's widescreen. And I think they're putting a stake in the ground saying, “The future is autonomy and entertainment.” I think Sony has brand permission to play there. I certainly wouldn't give them the permission to build a car. I think that's an area that feels like a real mismatch. “Why is Sony building a car?” But I could see them owning the dash experience. They've got the pedigree with PlayStation, and they've got the entertainment background, and Sony movies. So there's definitely some natural synergy there but I'm unsure, why they put out a car.

To trust an autonomous car, you kind of want it to look exotic and bizarre and require more armature, in order to gain your trust.

David Rose

It's curious. If Sony is all about their entertainment pedigree, why don't they don't spend more physical real estate on surround sound, on surround screen? It's pretty conservative in that nine-inch-high band of screening.

Dustin Boutet

They didn't go far enough for this concept to make it really thought-provoking. It just feels like a safe play on it. Like with the bolt-on screens for the back headrests. That’s not future looking—that's kind of where we are today, or even 10 years ago.

David Rose

The provocative thing to do in the backseat would have been to have the seats fully recline and you see the massive sunroof? There is your Omni Theater.

Dustin Boutet

Yeah. Why didn't they take some more bold design decisions there? CES feels like the place to do that.

Margo Dunlap

I was also struck by the interior design on this thing. There's this trend—and I don't really know a ton about automotive design trends—but this trend with cars towards these bulky interiors. The center console is getting bigger and the seats themselves are shaped so that there's just like a lot of mass, and I'm not a huge fan of that. It feels very cramped and constricted, especially with autonomous vehicles where the form of the interior doesn’t necessarily have to be shaped by the function of being behind the wheel anymore.

Dustin Boutet

It's definitely a different use case with autonomous vehicles, right? Because you're not settled into a singular position. You want to be able to maybe rotate your chair or engage in conversation or relax.

Margo Dunlap

Yeah, I think they're trying to be ergonomic with these seats, but they feel constrictive, rather than open to all sorts of different use cases.

David Rose

And they do occupy a tremendous amount of space. It’s interesting, I think Tesla and some other car brands are going towards much thinner profiles, but that suggests a rotation, or reorientation. Why doesn’t the steering wheel fold away for full autonomous mode?

Dustin Boutet

They are removing the sideview mirrors in favor of cameras, but keeping with the same general form of them, which feels a little weird. “Why put that on the outside of the car? Could you integrate that a little bit more?” And using screens that are essentially, you know, taking up space where you might—

David Rose

Way too much space. Those rear-view screens should be nested in the little triangle of glass in the door. They don't need to be that big.

Dustin Boutet

Is there a real reason to replace the sideview mirrors with screens? And maybe there is if they can add some value to that view—but right now it's "technology-for-technology's sake."

David Rose

We could use a design principle from AR here. When we’re wearing heads-up displays 24-seven, those extra information layers will need to be really responsive to context. We really don't want multiple Iron Man data dashboards in our eyes all the time. And so, in the same way, I would hope that your rear-screen views are contextually smart—they only come up when there’s something to show. If there is something to show—someone's racing past you on the Autobahn—then you could use screen real estate that's front and center in the car to show somebody coming up on your rear and passing, because that's something which requires your attention.

Bosch Virtual Visor

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJgwEt12mEU

Margo Dunlap

Well, on one hand, it seems like over-technologizing an experience, but on the other hand I have commuted in California, and there are definitely moments at sunset when you're like, “I could completely be heading for a crash right now and have no idea.”

I like how badass she looks by having these hexadecimal segmented LCD tiles superimposed on her face.

Dustin Boutet

I think that there's a lot of potential for this application but also for, you know, night driving, localized dimming. And if this could become the whole windshield, then people driving with cataracts which, you know, really affects your ability to drive because of the glare, you could allow them to drive safer when they're driving at night. It feels a little “technology-for-technology's sake” in this application, but I see a lot of promise in this.

David Rose

I like how badass she looks by having these hexadecimal segmented LCD tiles superimposed on her face. She looks like a raccoon or something or Pris, the replicant from Blade Runner.

David Rose

I just like the generalization of: “If they can do that in a 14-inch-wide-by-seven-inch-high thing, then why couldn't all the glass of your car be something that’s selectively dimmable?” If the paparazzi are out there again, Dustin’s side windows go dim so he won't have to deal.

Bell and Hyundai Air Taxis

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHQ_1vaneqg

Dustin Boutet

Next one is Bell and Hyundai tackling the air taxi. And I thought this was really interesting, probably because I drive in Boston, and it's the worst traffic in the country.

David Rose

And you don’t believe tunnels from the Boring Company are going to be the savior?

Dustin Boutet

I don't think that more ground infrastructure is really going to fix it. With excess capacity comes additional cars on the road, so... I do wonder about the infrastructure that's needed to actually make this thing a reality. Where do you pick up? And where do you land? Is it convenient enough to actually sustain a business? Can you make it cost-effective enough? I think that there might be some markets that it could really work in—for instance, super-congested areas like Mumbai or Hong Kong or even Boston. It seems like they're definitely throwing the right kind of talent and then finding the right partners to make this thing a little more real. You know, bringing on ex-NASA aerospace engineers. Hyundai's obviously got the ability to scale and manufacture. It's something that they're taking seriously.

David Rose

What do you think the price point of a commute needs to be—order of magnitude—in order to have it penetrate more than just the 1% of the 1%?

Dustin Boutet

Maybe like $50 to $60 for a several-mile trip, between five and 10 miles? Because in high-congestion times, when Uber is surging, pricing can be that anyway. But this could potentially effectively reduce the cost of those trips for, you know, Uber or whoever's doing it, but also be a much better customer experience.

David Rose

I say 10 times that. Parking in Boston is 40 bucks? Taking an UberBlack home to the “W suburbs” in Boston—doesn't that cost 100 bucks?

What happens if these things take off and then suddenly, driving on the road becomes the fast, easy, and convenient way to get from place A to B?

Dustin Boutet

I think that it feels like 1%.

David Rose

A lot of people use UberBlack, and it still takes 60 minutes in traffic. If you could deliver people to their exurb estates in 10 minutes, and you could do it for around 500 or 600 bucks a day, that would be a threshold for broad adoption.

Dustin Boutet

Do you think so? Then you're talking the 1% or the 2%, but I think if you really want to go broad adoption and the skies are filled with these things, you have to be in the hundred to sub-hundred range for those quick trips.

Ken Gordon

I immediately thought of the skies filled with these things and thought: “Wow, what happens if these things take off and then suddenly, driving on the road becomes the fast, easy, and convenient way to get from place A to B?”

David Rose

[Laughs] Awesome.

Dustin Boutet

Yeah, there's a tremendous capacity in the air. But, developing the systems needed to track and maintain you know flight paths for all these different autonomous vehicles can be really complex.

David Rose

If a company came to us today and said, “We're going to do air traffic control for drone taxis. It's going to be a big business”—would that be a good project for us at EPAM Continuum?

Margo Dunlap

I always think of the thoroughfares they show in Star Wars. You'd need to design something like that. But to answer Ken’s comment, I think we'll equalize and find an equilibrium, and then we’ll have traffic both in the sky and on land.

I kind of feel like it's like autonomous vehicles, but even farther out. It's been like 10 years now that people have been talking about how autonomous cars are right around the corner, and they're really not. The technology is just not quite there yet, and so I kind of wonder about repeating ourselves with flying taxis.

We’re in this moment of a lot of futurism, which is really exciting—obviously I'm into that—but the flip side is that a lot of it feels like vaporware. Like, “Why are we talking about air taxis, when there's no chance we're going to have them within 10 years?”

Dustin Boutet

The hurdles to get an autonomous air vehicle are actually less than they are to put one on the road.

Margo Dunlap

You think?

Dustin Boute

Just the variables and complexity in navigating city streets, with pedestrians and non-uniform signage, construction—there are so many things that autonomous vehicles have to process; whereas for air taxis, just getting off the ground and landing again are the big, complex parts of the equation.

Margo Dunlap

Yeah, I might be totally off-base about the technology, too. But in the article I read last year about this Japanese company NEC—their little test flight was just getting the vehicle off the ground and back on the ground. Just lifts off 10 feet and then back, and that was the exciting thing, and I was like... “Wow, [laughter] we're far away here.”

Ken Gordon

The one thing that really interests me about this is the idea of unbundling air travel. Taking the concept of strapping ourselves into these humongous airplanes and instead making small-scale air travel more of a normal consumer experience. Imagine how everybody might get behind the idea of undoing the power of big airlines by traveling in these taxis, or whatever.

David Rose

It’s the fantasy of the automobile times ten. It’s the same essential drive for freedom, limitless adventure. At its limit, the wish is for teleportation. We all remember the illustrations in Popular Science from the 50s: “Your own chopper in your garage.”

Mercedes-Benz Vision AVTR Car

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=5IaUyq6_ey8&feature=emb_logo

Dustin Boutet

This one to me was really interesting, this Mercedes Avatar car.

Margo Dunlap

Yeah, I'm super into it. It does look a little silly and it’s obviously a concept thing. But the vegan leather and graphene battery cells are really exciting. Electric vehicle charging that doesn't rely on rare earth minerals is pretty important socially and environmentally, and huge for the industry too.

The center console seems to kind of articulate, up and down, as if it's a lung. That’s an astonishingly analog behavior. The brief was definitely: biomimicry.

Thinking in combination with the Fisker Ocean… I wanted to talk about the aesthetics of biomimicry and sustainability. Fisker’s Ocean electric vehicle, the concept car that they brought to CES—it had an entirely vegan interior and they use plastic from the ocean for parts of it. They have these ocean-inspired patterns on the dash. It made me think of Art Nouveau, and how that wave, that turn in industrial design and art, came as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, and that right now we're in this moment where we're all grappling—emotionally and politically—with climate change. And we're also in, I think some people call this the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And then we're seeing these aesthetics cropping up in our electronics. Interesting.

Dustin Boutet

Yeah, I thought this car was really interesting, but part of me is wondering: “Is this cross branding gone too far? You know, using the movie that came out, 10 years ago to be the basis for car design feels a little silly.” But we've also got the CyberTruck, which is essentially a vehicle from Blade Runner, which is a movie that came out, what, 30 years ago? So, I guess you're drawing inspiration from somewhere, but I wish it had been from nature and not necessarily Avatar, because I do like the ideas of biomimicry and what they're doing for sustainability. And also, I'm wondering why they aren't just calling it “synthetic leather” and why they're calling it “vegan leather” now. It feels a little forced to me.

David Rose

Wow: Look at the breathing effects. Did you see that? The center console seems to articulate, up and down, as if it's a lung. That’s an astonishingly analog behavior. The brief was definitely: biomimicry.

Is this drafting off of Avatar, the movie, or is this promoting the next Avatar movie? You know: Yes. [Laughter.]

Whenever you see a movie show you something that could be a toy that's in your next Happy Meal, I've always suspected, “Oh, they just did that because that's a product placement for a plastic toy that they know they have to sell a million of in order to make the movie profitable.”

Ken Gordon

So cynical, David.

David Rose

We're going to see more and more of these media branding mashups: movies and media drafting off of automotive brands, pay-for-placement fashion brands or whatever.

Ken Gordon

I actually really like that, weirdly enough. We published this post about Disneyland, and how Disneyland is able to get these super-enthusiastic people to work for them. The cast members. It’s because Disney has the world's strongest content marketing.

When it comes to culture-car collaborations… if you get the right content marketing, the deep content marketing that actually provides a technological future that you can actually build? That's a super brand promise. Avatar’s cheesy to me, but I can see how if you got the right narrative thread—classic narrative, right?—it could work. The fact that Avatar has been around for 10 years is to me an advantage, because it's proven its worth. It's a classic piece of cinema to various people.

Dustin Boutet

“Classic piece of cinema” might be a stretch [laughter].

David Rose

I do love, just from the biomimicry perspective that Margo mentioned, how the rear window of that car is a reactive skin. It not only reminds you of nature but it's also just beautiful. It feels very much like it was done in Revit with grasshopper… tessellations.

Margo Dunlap

It does look like a grasshopper. Yeah.

Dustin Boutet

I agree it's beautiful, but I think this is just design for its own sake and I don't see the purpose of it. They didn't articulate really what it's for. They're like, “Oh, in the future, it could be for IoT, communicating with the grid.” But right now it just feels like it's there because it's beautiful, which I think if you're upfront about that, then that's fine.

Fisker Ocean

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5z4NznQp-U

David Rose

The piano keys are funky. What's going on there?

Dustin Boutet

So, dedicated keys. There's a little bit of pushback against what’s happening at Tesla with no hard buttons, right? But I think making those smart, or remappable, would have been a decision that would have given the car a little bit more longevity. So, I appreciate what they're doing, because I think some interactions need physical buttons, but I don't know if I agree on the execution.

David Rose

What don't you like about that curve? Is it a screen adjacent to the keys as well?

Margo Dunlap

The screen flows into the keys.

Dustin Boutet

Yeah, so it's a fully curved, probably OLED screen. I think it's a really nice design piece. I'd wonder about its functionality. Yes, you'd have to sit in it and use it. Trying to undercut the Model Y and in terms of price and getting it out there as a sub-$40,000 EV is a smart decision. I wonder if they'll be able to achieve it. There's a lot of companies that are racing to catch up, and with limited success so far, and we'll see…

Dustin Boutet

This was Elon Musk's goal, right? He said: “I just want more manufacturers making these electric vehicles.”

Trying to undercut the Model Y and in terms of price and getting it out there as a sub-$40,000 EV is a smart decision. I wonder if they'll be able to achieve it.

David Rose

I really hope that there's a peace agreement made between all of the charging-infrastructure players so that we can take that off the table as a concern for buyers.

Dustin Boutet

So we don't have a series of walled gardens that you can only use a particular brand with that charging infrastructure?

David Rose

The bold move, and a really smart move for the next head of the EPA, is to pledge: “We are going to subsidize all the charging infrastructure in this country and make it free to charge any car anywhere.”

Dustin Boutet

That would leapfrog us into the future and that would increase the incentive to actually buy an electric vehicle. We would just see a rapid acceleration of adoption.

David Rose

I thought forever that they should do the same thing with public transportation. I heard once at a lecture at MIT that the cost of maintaining the people that guard the gates at the T and the cost of those gates of the T is about the same as what they collect—which means that if we made public transportation in this country, free, full stop, that would be a great experiment.

Dustin Boutet

Yep, and they’re experimenting in some cities—forgetting if it’s Kansas City or not—but with making bus transit free to increase adoption, and they actually get a lot more people riding it.

Delta’s Parallel Reality Board

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9T3Hzui1X4

Dustin Boutet

I thought what Delta was showing at CES was one of the most interesting things, maybe not because of the specific technology, but the way that they're investing. They’re thinking about the customer experience. They're really spending some money. By all metrics, they're doing better than any other airline but they’re not resting on their laurels. They're looking into the future and asking: “What kind of experience can we build that will differentiate us in the market?”

David Rose

I’m curious; explain what this board does.

Margo Dunlap

Delta's looking into the future and asking: “What kind of experience can we build that will differentiate us in the market?”

Basically, it directs pixels in such a way that what you see is your personalized flight information, like “David, your flight’s at Gate A8.” And Ken standing right there sees, “Hey, Ken, your flight’s been delayed…”

Dustin Boutet

The way that it is projecting that information, as many as 100 people can look at the screen at once and see different information. Which feels like a pretty bold promise, but it's something that they must have some confidence in because they're launching it in Detroit, mid-year. And people are going to be able to go up and experience it. There's a lot of issues that they're going to need to solve. You’ll need to opt into their ecosystem. You probably need to use their app and allow some kind of location tracking so the screen knows where you are. I think people are going to going to want to try it and see what it is because the benefit is clear, if they can figure it out.

Margo Dunlap

It’s the same sort of customer experience that we designed in our Southwest wayfinding project, but they found a technology solution, instead of a wayfinding design solution. Two different ways of getting there.

Ken Gordon

I thought immediately about you, David, because you've talked about people experiencing different kinds of realities at once. I could see companies using this technology on billboards and actively promoting thousands, millions, gazillions of different views of seeing a particular thing, and how that’s something we gotta keep an eye on, because it can easily get out of control.

Margo Dunlap

Delta’s video talks about using biometrics. And I don't love biometrics in airports; I don't love the way that they're being rolled out without a lot of information. I got on a JetBlue flight last year where they were using facial recognition at the gate, without having told us in advance, and so if you if you wanted to opt out it was unclear if you would be delaying the flight or not getting on the flight. And so, I just wonder if there are ways we can design systems that allow people to opt out of biometric data collection without being penalized, that are hybrid systems.

David Rose

I believe the technology here is similar to the Looking Glass Factory is doing in Brooklyn. They offer a 3D holographic display, which projects a different view of a model across 45 different viewing angles. As you move your head, you’re getting a slightly different rendering of the image. So these Delta displays could be using the same technique. 45 different people at 45 different angles relative to the display, each seeing totally different personalized information from their vantage.

Dustin Boutet

Awesome. Thank you, guys, for joining the conversation.

David Rose

I learned a lot. Thank you for inviting us.

Image by Natasha Polozenko

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