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Designing a Jetson mobile

Former fashion designer Anthony Prozzi's goal: Integrate high technology in the Ford of the future.

Anthony Prozzi, a designer for Ford Motor, is keeping close watch as yet another new generation of technology-smitten youth grows up. It's this group of future customers he has in mind as he tries to anticipate what they'll want out of an automobile in 2020.

The creator of the interior of Ford's Mercury Meta One concept car, Prozzi is a former fashion designer for Donna Karan. He's trying to apply that same sensibility to his current job--which is no less than to figure out how to merge the latest in technology with the more pedestrian habits of Ford drivers.

At the recently concluded New York International Auto Show, Prozzi showed off some of his latest thinking on the subject. With the Meta One concept car, he appointed the interior with three LCD screens for displaying gauges and navigation information and a fourth touch screen for controlling functions such as the radio. It's also got a cell phone-inspired wireless "key" for storing a person's screen orientation and other preferences.

CNET News.com spoke with Prozzi about what he sees on the road ahead--especially as it concerns design issues and the pending marriage of cars and computers.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the dashboard layout of the Meta One?
Prozzi: I was looking for something that was simplified. Let's face it: People work a crazy life. I hear people say they work 9 to 5, but in reality, they work 5 to 9. With all this overabundance of buttons, controls and visuals, people are not spending enough time doing what they're supposed to be doing when behind the wheel.

What was the chief technology challenge?
Prozzi: My challenge was to use the technology to simplify things like a home computer does. It brings up your e-mail and runs an New York Auto Show gallery application the way you want things done. The trick was how to marry the things we are already used to having--for example, your cell phone now has a day planner with appointments and can even communicate with other types of wireless handheld devices. How do you take that technology into your car to simplify your life?

If, for example, you needed to be at the Javits Center at 9:30 a.m. and you were driving in from Staten Island, your car already knows you have to get to a certain place. It could pre-plan a route, check for accidents and change that route according to what's going on, and remind you along the way to pick up Joe, the camera man--and not to forget an extra battery pack for his equipment.

How do you incorporate all that into a car design?
Prozzi: The first thing is simplification. I'd rather start the car--and do that not necessarily by using the traditional key but the way you would engage other high-end electronics devices with a button you push. So, we use an electronic button both to start and shift. We took the idea of a key and notched it up a few levels. We're now into this sort of iconic status symbol that acts as an interface between your other electronic devices like a laptop, a PDA and a cell phone.

Is there anything else you would communicate with?
Prozzi: My feeling is that everything is beginning to converge. Your cell phone can now hold all of your appointments. So why not extend the same sort of communication that you have at home to something that's already an extension of your home--your automobile?

Looking at the Meta One, it really struck me how much the dashboard layout resembles a computer screen because in the concept, you have three windows you can change around. It's not unlike being on a computer, on which you can take your windows and move them around to suit your needs. I saw a parallel there.
Prozzi: Right. What it does is it gives a win-win to both the consumer, as well as me, the designer.
Why not extend the same sort of communication that you have at home to something that's already an extension of your home--your automobile?

The consumer could enter a dealership the same way a man would go to a personal tailor for the highest level of attention; the fantasy is seeing the dealership as your personal tailor. That salesman could talk to you, figure out exactly what colors and layout you like in the same way you can personalize your computer desktop now. You do that to your vehicle's display as well. And if you get tired of it, you can change it to something else. As a designer, the sort of communications you can have is limitless. If you want something that has large gauges, fine--you can do that. If you wanted nothing at all but basic information, you have that.

Can you change the orientation of the screens as well?
Prozzi: Absolutely. It all comes down to personal taste. If you're the type of driver that needs just a large speedometer in front of you, that's your choice. I kind of like the speedometer right in front of me. Obviously, while I'm driving, I'm not going to watch streaming video or check my e-mail. But my passenger can do that. Or if I'm refueling or waiting for a friend that I'm picking up, I have the option to check e-mail or check something out.

Do you have a sense of how far off some of the elements in the concept--such as LCD screens--are from production?
Prozzi: I don't think we're that far off right now. You get into a vehicle that has a navigation system that's reconfigurable. So you're already halfway there. I think that the other thing we need to overcome is to make certain that all the failsafes are set. Everything needs to be integrated in a very safe, smart, failsafe way.

Obviously, it's in a concept car, so we're thinking about it, and we're testing it. It's just a matter of making certain that it's foolproof. The last thing you want to be doing is cruise down the road at 90 miles an hour and have a system crash. Didn't that happen once to Bill Gates when he was unveiling one of the latest Microsoft operating systems? That's not going to happen to me.

I think what's important about the Meta One is (the lack of a traditional) key. Here's this thing that you take for granted that you can carry in your pocket, and it can communicate with other devices at home. You have that now. Everyone has a Bluetooth something, something that's wireless or something with a USB port. That, I think, is much closer than we realize.

A handheld that's like a remote control?
Prozzi: Yes. A remote control that acknowledges you as the owner and has all of your information. It's sort of a link. We can't combine car and house yet, so what's that link between them? In our case, it's what we used to refer to as the ignition key. That's easy to achieve.
Obviously, while I'm driving, I'm not going to watch streaming video or check my e-mail. But my passenger can do that.

As technology gets a little bit more advanced, we have the choice of downsizing it, and we can shape it and sculpt it--the exterior. My feeling is, it becomes sort of a status symbol. I always crack up when I see people pull out a black American Express card as their status symbol. Imagine you have the Mercury card (for your car), and it's this gorgeous, aesthetically beautiful thing that just happens to have all the information you've decided to download so that the car recognizes you and knows your life.

How long do you think it will be until LCD screens or touch screens work their way into new cars?
Prozzi: I had a reconfigurable touch display. That was one of the test beds. I was curious to see how people would react. Although I had a touch display, I had buttons next to it as well. One of the things I'm still searching for is that when you're in a car, you still want that sensory feedback: I touched the button, I engaged it, I felt it without having to take my eyes off the road. I think that for cars, it's going to be a really careful balance.

One of the things we've been playing with are virtual keyboards, especially for a passenger. Instead of packaging this nasty, big, heavy keyboard, you could have a virtual keyboard that's projected onto a surface. So, the surface becomes the input device. That's something you're seeing now. Look at very high-end stereo equipment or even high-end washers, on which you just touch a surface, and that becomes the button. Is it right for a car? Not sure just yet. But it's something to consider.

Drivers need something that they can touch?
Prozzi: We're already beginning to see something like that like all the redundant controls that are placed on the steering wheel--little thumb levers and miniature joysticks.

Where technology is leading the automotive interior is in now giving you the freedom to clean up the instrument panel. Where you're able to reconfigure and rethink things like radio controls, heating and cooling controls, you're able to clean up and get less clutter.

The whole beauty of a concept car is, you're able to present a concept we have considered or that's in our back pocket. Obviously, those displays didn't come out of nowhere. They become test beds. Is this right? Is this something that's good? Do we take it forward and spend the money and time (on it)? Are consumers willing to pay a premium for it?

Are you a heavy computer user outside of work?
Prozzi: Yeah. Are you kidding? Who isn't? My nephews come over--I work with a Mac at home--and they jump on, and they know how to check e-mail and play around. It's that whole idea of getting a pulse and a vibe for what's going on in the world.

How does that impact your thinking about auto design?
Every kid knows what an Xbox is. They all know. As a designer, you've got to realize those things and understand that that if these kids are this savvy now, imagine when they're 18, 19 and 20, and they start to drive. And then imagine when they're 30 and they have careers where they're earning some serious cash. Then what do they want to drive?

You really have to do an exercise like seeing the future first. What do we have now? What didn't we have 15 years ago? And what's going to happen in the next 15 years? I'm convinced that kids (in the future) are going to want things that are very, very personalized.