UX & UI designer, programmer
The Mobile and Environmental Media Lab or MEML at USC is dedicated to exploring the future of interactivity between people their environment congruent with technological advancement. In 2014 I worked with the research lab on the BMW Lifelog project as a user experience designer, programmer, and writer. The goal of the Lifelog project was to design a system that would revolutionize the automotive industry – no small task. According to BMW, the growth of cell phones and ridesharing services were changing the relationship that people had with their cars, particular amongst the younger generation. In fact, many young adults upon reaching driving age were actually opting to not purchase a car in favor of using services like Lyft and Uber.
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Instead of competing against other car manufactures, as they had in the past, BMW was now competing in sea of apps, cell phones, and other must-own gadgets. Over the years the iPhone established itself as a fundamental part of the average western lifestyle becoming a do-it-all device offering everything from precise GPS navigation, picture quality rivaling many professional cameras, and the power of a traditional desktop computer. While at the same time, car ownership was quickly becoming a symbol of the past as cars were seen more and more and having a singular purpose. To make the car relevant again we needed to make it more just a method of transportation.
In our quest to cars back into focus in people’s lives we decided that the car of the future would need to be more interactive, more alive - it needed to become a character. Creating a more interactive car required three things: collecting data, giving the user a method to interact with their personal data, and bringing the user into a compelling story.
Gathering user data was the simple part; our lab was given a Mini Countryman for our research which was equipped with over twenty functional sensors measuring everything from the vehicle’s location to the passenger seatbelt status. Using a custom developed iOS application we transmitted and stored the car’s real-time sensor data to an online MySQL database. Once we had the data we realized that we needed to make it more engaging for the average end user as its raw format left much to be desired in regards to excitement.
One of our first experiments with making our datasets more engaging was designing a virtual reality (VR) experience which drivers or prospective car owners could explore. I designed and programmed this VR model viewer with the Oculus Rift development kit and the Unity game development engine. While the VR viewer was met with glowing reviews the lab and I decided to also begin work on another project that could target a larger demographic as VR headsets were still rare amongst average consumers.
In an effort to make our Mini Countryman more engaging we decided to give the car a personality that would communicate and react to the driver, we called it A.L.I.C.E. This personality would parse the data collected by the car and show the driver different messages depending on what they had done that day, month, and sometimes longer. Not only was the driver shown messages that corresponded to how they used the car but they were also regularly asked to complete specific tasks and quests.
To create these quests I first had to code for specific situations in a Lua interpreter which would later compile down to Xcode that would run locally on our mobile app delivering witty one-liners, personalized iconography, and segments of our own unique visual language for the car. The mobile app would then pass on this data to the in-car display located in the center console in the Mini called the iDrive. Quest and event interaction would often have the player communicating with the car by using the car’s media controls and more like turning on the front windshield wipers. For instance, one such quest had the drivers going to a popular scenic overlook in Los Angeles.
After giving our car a personality our next step was to create an alternative reality game (ARG). The ARG took the form of a website called the BMW Department of Corporeal Automotive Relationship Enhancement or dCare.The dCare website gave our drivers a place to interact with each other, their data, and gave us a convenient way to monitor our test subjects. To create a satisfying experience I designed and coded multiple webpages, user forums, and a message system.
To conclude our project we created a short film as the final part of our ARG which would serve to explain why new scripted story content would not be continuing moving forward. In the narrative that we created in the lab the personality that was installed on the Mini Cooper was going to be uploaded to a new vehicle for a James Bond like super-spy. My role in the video was the creation of motion graphics, created in Processing, which can be seen on the laptop used in the film.