Automotive joystick does everything but drive

DN Staff

October 7, 2002

3 Min Read
Automotive joystick does everything but drive

Play a video game in an arcade or movie theatre and you'll notice you're not just pushing buttons anymore...the buttons are pushing back at you!

The latest driving games feature steering wheels that jerk with every passing bump in the road, and golf games that let you feel the thwack of club against ball.

That haptic technology uses small motors to provide force-feedback to the user, reducing one more hurdle between the real world and virtual reality. Invented for the video gaming market, the technology is now spreading to other applications, like Web surfing, CAD model manipulation, medical design, and automotive controls.

In BMW's 2002 7-Series, the cluttered dashboard is replaced with a single button that can serve many different uses. It looks like the knob on your clothes dryer, but can handle many more tasks than simply trying not to shrink your favorite wool sweater.

Designed by Immersion Corp. (San Jose, CA), the iDrive knob helps to keep a driver's eyes on the road, says CTO Dean Chang.

"In the old days, you just had to control the AM radio," Chang says. "Now you have climate control, GPS navigation, cell can have 75 to 100 different knobs on a dashboard, so you end up spending less time with your eyes on the road."

The iDrive consolidates those dozens of controls into a single knob, measuring 2.5 inches across. It controls eight functions, including climate, entertainment, and navigation. Sounds confusing, but to distinguish between separate functions, it provides different feedback for each task.

"So a stereo fader will have a detent or divot in the middle, as you adjust the sounds between speakers, and you'll feel an end-stop at full-front or full-back," he says. "When it's controlling fan speed, the knob would have four big clicks: off, and 1, 2, 3 speeds. When you're using the knob to navigate through a list of GPS cities or cell phone numbers, it would act like the jog wheel on a VCR remote, being spring-centered so it would scroll more rapidly, the further you twist it off-center."

BMW says the iDrive will improve interaction between driver and automobile through a "drastic reduction in and reorientation of controls." The new scheme locates controls of greatest importance around the steering wheel-not the dashboard-and sets most other functions on the single controller, mounted on the center console. The knob links to a video display mounted high in the center of the dashboard.

Immersion struggled to migrate the technology from gaming to driving. Compared to entertainment, auto industry requirements are more price-sensitive, demand longer warrantees, and must be failsafe, Chang says. So for the BMW project, Immersion licensed its technology to ALPS Electric Co. (Tokyo, Japan), an automotive component supplier and systems integrator.

They also worked with Siemens VDO to adopt the knob for Volkswagen, which will feature it in the new Phaeton, due for release in 2003. Nissan is also working on a haptic scroll wheel, and demonstrated that at the Tokyo Auto Show, Chang says.

Immersion is also applying the technology to other markets. It recently released the MicroScribe G2, a 3D digitizing product used for reverse-engineering a physical model into CAD. And now medical students can use a haptic device "to learn how to give an IV-how much force they need to puncture the skin and arterial wall-as opposed to practicing on cadavers, pieces of fruit, or animals," Chang says. Enter the number at Haptics from Immersion Enter 534

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