VISION-S Prototype Design Story

How Sony's foray into mobility
became a pursuit of "reality"

#4 UI/UX design

Cars continue to make their way into the digital realm. The next generation of constant internet connectivity, too, continues to grow closer and closer.
As those elements of digital life converge, cars are bound to evolve into moving vaults of boundless information—and when they do,
what will happen to the relationships between people and cars and the connections between information and experience?
That is the question that UI/UX designers have to address. And Sony has an answer.

information and
in a panoramic screen

In the years to come, people in cars are going to find themselves with loads of information and content at their disposal. The human-car interface used to center on familiar elements like instrument panels and air-conditioning controls, but the scope of the content is growing exponentially to include things like entertainment, communication, destination information, and sensor information. To give riders an optimal in-vehicle means of interacting with all that content, Sony developed a panoramic screen—an interface that stretches across the entire breadth of the car’s interior. From side mirror to side mirror, the screen consolidates the layout for every last bit of information input and output into a single, connected interface that aligns in horizontal harmony with the OVAL aesthetic. The biggest aim was to give drivers even faster access to the information they need, even if only by a few milliseconds—speed and ease were the key goals. After making several prototypes and constantly working to enhance ergonomic performance, the UI/UX team eventually forged a next-generation UI that made human-car interaction both simple and fast.

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Horizontal connections: A screen layout that engages riders

The panoramic screen is a combination of three displays: the standard instrument panel display for the driver (cluster display), a center display, and a display for the front-seat passenger to manipulate. When you divide a single panoramic screen into distinct, adjoining sections, you get a setup conducive to teamwork; the driving experience takes on a layer of collaboration, in a way. On a drive, the center screen might provide navigation assistance while the front-seat passenger looks at his or her own display for details on shop recommendations in the area. The passenger can browse information on the screen, get some ideas from the content, and talk to the driver about places to go. Once they make a decision, the passenger can bring the destination of choice up on the central navigation screen; the collaboration produces a result for the pair to share. The passenger naturally assumes an even more dynamic “copilot” role, one that makes the drive more of a team effort. That type of shared driving experience is the product of the panoramic screen, a crucial element of the UI/UX design.

How the “L-Swipe” puts information at riders’ fingertips

What makes the horizontal connection between the driver and the passenger even more flexible is the “L-Swipe” gesture functionality. With one quick L-shaped finger movement on the screen, the passenger can send on-screen information over to the next display. How does that enhance the experience? A rider might set up a navigation route on the passenger-seat display and then “flick” it over to the center screen for shared visibility, for example. The driver could launch a music app and send the screen over to the passenger, who then gets to DJ the ride. It all comes together into a next-generation format for in-car interaction, enabling drivers and passengers to communicate with minimal operation.

Creating a
“digital-native” cockpit
for a road-ready car

While the VISION-S Prototype certainly embodies a futuristic take on mobility, the team spared no effort in achieving the true aim of the UI/UX: making things as practical and user-friendly as possible. The design of a car’s UI, the platform for rider-vehicle interaction, represents a test of whether the car is a “real-life” means of personal mobility or just a concept model. Sony was obviously after the former, so the project team made drivability on actual public roads a must. The UI/UX team started by studying all the existing laws, regulations, and auto-industry ISO standards it would need to satisfy, after which the designers got to work on figuring out what a feasible digital cockpit would look like—the visibility of the cluster display, the operability of the steering system, and even the visual contrast and coloring of everything in the driver’s field of view.

Digital mirrors: More than just replacements

If you want to get the gist of the high level of practicality behind the VISION-S Prototype’s UI/UX, look no further than the car’s side mirrors. The car breaks from the traditional glass-mirror mold by implementing digital mirrors, which boast camera and display features, but the new additions are more than simple substitutes for the norm. The process of introducing digital mirrors actually has implications for so many other components: they create the need to adjust the positioning of the A pillar, rethink the cluster display, redraw driver sightline movement, and essentially reoptimize the whole car. As the displays fit into an interior context with the dashboard and pieces around the steering wheel, too, the designers made numerous revisions to get the positioning right. They also tried something new when it came to performance. By linking up with the radars and sensors that detect the car's surroundings, they made it possible to pop up an alert on the display whenever danger looms—a high-speed approach from the rear or an intrusion from a blind spot, for instance. They also included an AR display of target cars to make it even easier for drivers to recognize danger. At night-time and in stormy conditions, when human error is more prone to occur, radars and sensors will serve as a watchful eye, supporting riders' safety through the display. Instead of just replacing glass mirrors with digital mirrors, the team rebuilt the design from the ground up in fine detail to create a true digital-mirror environment.

How the cloud extends
the VISION-S experience

Sony saw the VISION-S Prototype as an opportunity to spread the car experience beyond the car itself, leveraging the deepening links between mobility and the cloud. The UI/UX team conceived smartphones and other mobile devices as parts of the car itself—and with user accounts on those devices consolidating the relevant information, the mobility experience could take on an even more seamless continuity. In that kind of framework, a user could go through a whole range of remote operations before getting in the car (configuring air-conditioning settings, locking and unlocking the doors, and parking automatically) and stay connected after the drive; imagine playing back dashboard-camera footage on your smartphone or a large screen in your living room with background music, for instance. By conceptualizing the UX as encompassing the before, the during, and the after of the actual drive, the team took full advantage of a broader palette for enriching everything from comfort to entertainment.

Software updates: Adaptability for an ever-evolving UI/UX

Cars used to evolve incrementally via “model changes.” A manufacturer would develop and release the latest version of a car, and users would buy the newest release to replace an older one. The VISION-S Prototype, however, will evolve continuously. With built-in network connectivity, the car will be able to update its software; users will be able to drive a car that ages with grace, gets more and more comfortable over time, and delivers richer, more diverse experiences. Instead of just starting to get outdated as soon as it leaves the lot, the VISION-S Prototype will always have the latest, most efficient UI/UX available. “That continual evolution doesn’t just make the driving experience more comfortable and rewarding for the user. It extends the update cycle, too,” says designer Akagawa. “It’s a more sustainable vision, which is something the auto industry needs.” In envisioning its car concept, Sony wanted to eschew the past tense altogether—the goal was to keep the car in the present at all times. Fellow designer Komatsu sees the UI/UX as an evolving dynamic, too: “As people’s needs and social demands change, so will the optimal approach to UI/UX design. We’ll have to keep updating our own design sensibilities and adapting to shifts in the way the world works.”

Chief Art Director Satoshi Akagawa, Art Director Hidehiro Komatsu