Car features of the future

Seats in cars today have the ability to move to its drivers desired position. But what happens when you take it to the next level and create a seat with five expressive behaviors. Hamish Tennent researcher at Cornell University joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the potential interactions between users and the modern car seat.


Seats in cars today have the ability to move to its driver's desired position, but what happens when you take it to the next level and create a seat with five expressive behaviors?

Hamish Tennent, researcher at Cornell University, joins us to discuss the potential interactions between users and the modern car seat.

All right.

Explain how does a car seat get that much smarter?

Yeah, so we're really interested in kind of existing degrees of freedom in a car seat, as you mentioned, that kind of motorized moving around at the moment, and so as a robotics and autonomous car research lab, we thought, like, 'Can we make this something more?

Can we Pixarify this car seat, and can we kind of make, you know, anyone on the street be able to say, 'That's a happy car seat.

That's an excited car seat.

That's a cool car seat,'' as a way of kind of engaging the driver in a more complex communication.

So we're seeing now with autonomous cars that, like, the people's relationship to the car is vastly different than it used to be, and so the car seat is able to maybe take some of the brunt of kind of this more complex communication and trust-building that has to happen between a driver and a car.

So what happens?

When I open the door, the car seat is exhibiting an emotion toward me?

Potentially, yeah.

So we wanted to design kind of a few archetypal behaviors, and so myself and Wendy Ju at the Jacobs Institute at Cornell Tech over at Roosevelt Island kind of took on the task of saying, like, 'Just what is possible with this degree of freedom?'

and so we used the scenario of a greeting, and so, you know, I'm walking up and approaching the car and sort of, yeah, just as you said, what does a... In that moment, what does an excited car seat look like?

What does, you know, a quirky car seat look like?

What -- Okay.

As a driver, what -- Why should I care what a quirky car seat looks like, or what... You know what I mean?

I mean, we think of, right now, a car seat is a functional object that I will go sit on, and it will keep me in the car and hopefully safe with a seatbelt and whatever, and I can drive on.

But there's something underlying this.

Do we have a relationship with our technology?

Yeah, yeah, I think, you know, existing, you know, 10, 20, 30 years, we've all had kind of relationships with our cars, but we kind of view it as more of a tool.

You know, it's a pedal, and it's wheel.

I press the pedal.

I turn the wheel.

It does what I say.

Now, with these increasingly autonomous features, you press a button, and you have to trust that the car gets you where you want to go and obeys the rules and sees the person over there, and all of a sudden, like, your... The needs you have of that car are much greater, and so any kind of excuse that you can build trust in this relationship, you can communicate with the car and understand that, you know, the car sees you, and you see the car.

And so maybe this car seat is a vehicle for that communication, you know?

So maybe you approach the car, and, you know, the car sees that you're tired and stressed after a long day of work, and you don't want the car to say, 'You're not allowed to drive because it's dangerous.'

That would be, you know, maybe a little bit kind of offensive to you.

I was already kind of sleepy and a little bit cranky after a long day of work, but maybe the car uses these expressive behaviors to suggest, like, 'Why don't you relax in the back?'

you know, 'Why don't you kind of let me take the wheel?

Let me drive you home.'

So this in a future where artificial intelligence is playing a greater role in vehicles' autonomy?

Yeah, and so we're kind of seeing this starting to trickle in now.

You know, you're top-of-the-line models of cars can keep you in a lane and, you know, partially autonomous, we call it, kind of level-two, level-three autonomy, and we're kind of working in the space of this level-three, level-four where things, you know... Maybe you can press a button, and you don't have to watch the car anymore.

Maybe you press a button, and you can go to sleep in the back, but in this kind of near future, this sort of 5 to 10-year timeline.

So why get the car seat to be emotive?

Why not get some hologram or a smiley face or, you know, I mean, other ways that the car could express itself?

Yeah, and certainly, and that's kind of... You know, we have a lot of researchers in that lab looking at just this -- Can the steering wheel become expressive?

Can the screen... Can we utilize that?

We kind of looked at the car seat and said, 'There are already these motives there.

It's already doing these things.

It already reacts to your key fob or our smartphone and reacts to you as you're approaching the car and says, 'I'm going to rearrange to suit you,' and so there's already this kind of functional interaction, and so we thought, you know, 'Is there an opportunity to layer an expressive layer over the top?'

And when you did this, I read that you had to sort of understand kind of digital puppeteering.

For sure, yeah.

So, I think one of the interesting aspects of this work, I mean... and kind of Wendy Ju is amazing at this.

She really kind of gets a lot of people in a room that have a broad skill set, so, you know, myself as maybe a roboticist and a designer.

Get some engineers in the room, but also, we think, like, 'Who else is really knowledgeable about moving and movement and kind of how to express themselves through movement?'

And so we get a few, like, dancers and theater actors and people who are kind of much more attuned and have spent their whole careers on the stage thinking about how body posture and how movement and how the kind of minutiae and detail can effect these kind of interactions.

And so we get them all in the room, and we say, like, 'Here is a car seat that we can puppet, and here's a digital car seat that you can control,' and then, you know, 'What does happy look like?

What does sad look like?

What does the car seat look like when you haven't driven the car in three months, and, you know, you come to it on a Sunday morning, and all of a sudden, it's, you know, much more excited than it normally is.'

And so we kind of explore these interactions, and we kind of pare down to, you know, 'What are the essential elements?'

All right.

Hamish Tennent, car seats of the future, thanks so much.

Thank you very much.