Chris — A Design Journey

How German Autolabs set about building a no-touch device to democratize in-car voice assistance.

Early prototypes of Chris

The past few years have seen the emergence of a new generation of voice assistants, with Google Assistant, Alexa, Siri and Bixby quickly becoming household names. At the same time, the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem has expanded rapidly. Household devices can now be controlled by simple voice commands, making daily tasks easier and quicker. Turning on the lights, making a cup of coffee, even restocking the fridge can all be done with the power of speech.

Chris on the drawing board

One area that the march of technological progress has yet to conquer is the automotive space. Fully autonomous cars are some distance off, but technology can still solve driver problems and make journeys easier and safer in the meantime.

One major issue that can be tackled by tech is distracted driving. The use of phones at the wheel is one of the biggest causes of driving accidents and road deaths, with drivers feeling the urge to stay connected on the road.

Taking inspiration from the IoT and the voice assistant revolution, we designed and built Chris, a digital voice assistant that lets drivers use their favorite apps and services without touching their phone. Calls, music, navigation and WhatsApp and SMS messaging can all be controlled through voice and gesture alone.

As an environment, the car presents a significant design challenge. Here are some of the key features that we built into the signature hardware of Chris in order to mitigate those issues.

Glanceable display to decrease distraction
We deliberately limited the size of the display and created a crystal clear, glanceable graphic interface. Drivers can understand these infographics without distracting themselves from the road, as is the case with larger infotainment interfaces. This was a direct reaction to the current trend for ever-larger in-car infotainment displays, such as those installed in Tesla vehicles. These large screens are, according to research, incredibly distracting for drivers. Our smaller, easily glanceable display limits distraction while providing the information that drivers really need.

An exploded view of Chris

Gesture sensor
For most applications, drivers will use their voice to control Chris. However, for quick adjustments such as volume changes or skipping songs, simple hand gestures are less cognitively demanding. With this in mind, we included a gesture sensor so that drivers can control Chris as quickly and easily as possible. This is reflective of a wider trend in automotive control systems, with the market for gesture recognition in cars projected to exceed 13 billion by 2024.

Modern tech for older cars
Certain new cars have voice-control systems of varying quality. These systems have a variety of known issues, and we’re working to make sure that Chris surpasses them. Of course, most cars on the road are not brand-new, and can be brought up-to-date by installing Chris. The device is simple to install in any car, and can be connected with car audio systems through a Bluetooth FM adapter. For cars without an audio system, Chris has a built-in speaker with five concealed beamforming microphones for voice capture.

Chris: the award-winning final iteration

Beautiful design 
We wanted Chris to look and feel special. Chris has a timeless design, with a color-rich TFT screen mounted into a CNC-milled aluminum bezel. Inspiration for Chris’ circular form came from classic sports car instrument design. The power cable can be fitted around the windshield to prevent distraction. We did everything in our power to counter the ugly infotainment systems found in most cars.

Chris: 2019 iF Design Award Winner

Designing Chris has been a journey in itself. Our research dictated that Chris’ form be governed by four main driver requirements: calls, messaging, music and navigation. Identifying these use cases was critical in determining Chris’ overall form and function. In addition, we unearthed and addressed real-world driver issues. For example, Chris works offline: while other digital assistants need internet connections, Chris works even without a connection.

It’s a design that reduces distraction — a truly non-touch, glanceable interface allied to multimodal offline dialogue management. Chris democratizes in-car voice assistance. The end of this design journey came with recognition from the iF Design Award 2019, where Chris was honoured for its best-in-class aesthetics and elegant form-factor.

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Further reading