Bionic Shell

How to merge nature and technology to overcome the anonymity of a technical object.

Context

How will autonomous vehicles accompany our lives in 2050? If you believe the studies of some automakers, we will move in a cosmos of moving soapboxes. Autonomy as additional equipment. However, the many possibilities of autonomous driving offer enormous potential for thinking about mobility in a completely new context.

In times of urbanization and mechanization, the desire for naturalness arises. The conception of cars as “companions” and the popularity of conversational interfaces are clear examples. However, completely natural interaction can only take place when nature and technology merge and the anonymity of a technical object is overcome. It's not just about decorative, symbolic or metaphorical aspects. Also, the specific behavior of the vehicles is of elementary importance. Do they support us in our social behavior? Are they developing their own lives, can they grow, shrink, divide or even rot?

The development of low-emission engines and the use of sustainable production chains are already trying to harm the environment as little as possible. But what if the design approach could focus more on not just dealing with the environment, but integrating with it? The imitation of nature in design is an old phenomenon. This integration is the logical consequence—the evolution. So the car is no longer a status object: it is the status.

Creating a future scenario

Believing the current visions of the big car manufacturers, the future of mobility looks rather monotonous—all vehicle studies are largely similar in shape, size, and appearance. An individualization of vehicles remains on the track. The car's position in society has changed in the last decade: today it's no longer about showing what you have, but what you stand for and what you identify with. This observation was an important basic assumption for our work.

As a further basis, we created a future scenario—certain framework conditions in which we would operate. This primarily included the assumption of urban areas that can only be used by autonomous vehicles—in the specific example Berlin’s inner S-Bahn ring (the “A-area”).

The basic idea was to make autonomous carsharing vehicles customizable for each occupant. This should be achieved by an adaptive outer shell, flexible in shape and color. However, the changeable appearance should not only be modifiable in terms of styling but also be more fittable for different purposes. The trend of so-called “cocooning” also contributed significantly to the exploration of an outer shape.

First sketches on paper showing a vehicles outer shell
To communicate ideas within the team we sketched our first ideas
Examples of different visual shapes and patterns
We collected a lot of shapes and patterns for visual inspiration

Getting to know the user

In order to set requirements for a changing outer shell, we decided on a strongly user-centered approach. We defined personas whose needs we examined with different methods. First of all, we developed a so-called “Value Proposition Canvas” for every persona, which helped us to become aware of their handling of mobility as well as difficulties arising in this context. From these findings, we derived user stories, which we integrated into our basic scenario and visualized in storyboards.

Wall with Post-Its sorted in categories showing Jobs, Pains and Gains
We developed a Value Proposition Canvas to better understand our personas

Thanks to the different methods, we now had a wealth of new insights. It quickly became clear that the availability of autonomous vehicles opens up completely new possibilities for mobility for certain groups of users, e.g. for the ten-year-old child, who is now able to use private transport alone and independently. At the same time, however, there are also challenges that go hand in hand with these opportunities: How does a vehicle gain the necessary trust of a child, so that it feels at ease on its own? What is the hierarchical relationship between the vehicle and the underage child?

We used mood boards to define our personas visually. At the beginning of our research, we dealt with different age groups and life situations, which we had already integrated into the personas themselves. On this basis, we particularly focused on topics of social interaction. As the main point, the conflict between the desire to stand out from the crowd and the desire to be part of society emerged.

Moodboard showing categories for children, senior citizens and the field of social media
Moodboard showing categories for the fields of customization and society
We used mood boards to define our personas visually

Design exploration

We transferred our findings from the user research to initial design drafts. At first, we were very free: Batman mobile, hippie buses and barrier-free mobile homes for the elderly were created. We quickly identified the abundance of functional and aesthetic facets with a changing vehicle skin as a challenge. To get started, we decided to first create a basic form, based on which different visual approaches and parameters can be applied and tested.

We designed a vehicle cover consisting of a grid that runs across the entire model. The core of the vehicle is a rigid inner capsule. It consists of a glass dome, which bulges over a floor pan containing the drive. Instead of windows, we defined grid elements that are variable in their color up to the point of transparency. These elements have no mechanical attachment—they float in a kind of magnetic field around the vehicle and are thus movable in position. If a door is needed, it is formed in the appropriate place.

Basic form of vehicle with the grid of flowing elements
Implementation of a character from the movie “Cars” into the basic form
We created a basic form, based on which different visual parameters can be applied (Example: “Cars” character for children)

The possibility of the grid’s “flowing” change—as it creates an organic body—was a central element of the design. This also referred to the first form studies and inspirations that we had collected at the beginning of the project.

The next step was to incorporate the results of our visual research into our basic shape, to test how variable the design could be. Here we revisited our different personas. For example, we implemented the design of a character from the Disney movie “Cars” and thus tackled questions that we had developed in user research: Would a child trust a vehicle that looks like a well-known movie hero? Would it be special for him/her to be traveling with it? Would the likelihood of a conflict decrease (the child does not want to buckle up, the child “turns around” in the vehicle), as the child follows the “instructions” of the mobile faster?

Turning point: Allowing more radical ideas

After a few iterations and explorations, we found that our parameter mapping approaches did not produce satisfactory results. Although we were able to approach and answer certain questions with the drafts, they did not really represent any innovation in relation to our initial question. In addition, our research revealed that a purely technical motivated solution to build a “Swiss Army Knife” was too short for situational needs: The aspects of social coexistence, which had stood out in our research, did not prevail in our approaches.

To find a real alternative to today's designs of autonomous mobility, we had to take a more radical approach. We decided to give our designs more life and connect technology and nature. For inspiration, we dealt even more with organic structures, bodies, and surfaces to come up with ideas for designing the vehicle’s shell. In addition to the visual design, we focused heavily on the development of new scenarios: Do the vehicles react to their environment? Can you tell by looking at them, whether they are in a hurry, whether they are "relaxing" or how their inmates are? Is there a social fleet behavior of autonomous vehicles? Do they join together to swarm, e.g. to share energy charges or to take advantage of other benefits?

Screenshot of a shared mood board on Pinterest
To find inspiration we mainly worked with mood boards that are shared within the team

The result of our process were three exemplary designs, which we presented in both urban and rural settings. We consciously aimed at getting an emotional reaction from the viewer. Whether astonishment, disgust, enthusiasm or ridiculousness—everything was possible and also desired. Our main prospect is a reaction that, at best, involves thinking about the future of mobility and the human relationship to autonomous vehicles.

Final scenarios

Vehicle full of diamond in a parking lot
Diamonds
Vehicle with human-looking skin out in the cold forrest
Skin
Hairy vehicle on a highway
Hair (Driving)
Hairy vehicle resting on a sidewalk
Hair (Resting)
Project name
Bionic Shell
Project timeframe
Apr 2017 – Jul 2017
My services
User Research, Scenario Development, Concept & Prototypes, UX Design
Collaborators
Partners

Next project

I worked with narratological scientists to create a tool for annotating and analyzing literature texts in networks.

I’m looking forward to hear from you at mail@casparkirsch.de or on LinkedIn / Twitter.