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General Motor's (NYSE:GM) luxury brand, Cadillac, recently participated at the CTIA Enterprise and Applications conference where it introduced its new Cadillac CUE navigation, information and multimedia car system.

According to GM engineers CUE, which stands for Cadillac User Experience, will represent a game changer in the automotive industry, as this new in-vehicle hub is meant to simplify drivers' usability while allowing a single control source for all information and entertainment tools used in (or connected to) a car.

Industry-first is probably the most used expression in Cadillac' s press release about the new interface:

  • Industry-first haptic feedback: Buttons on the fully capacitive faceplate and screen pulse when pressed to affirm that the command is being carried out. This technology gives the customer familiar tactile feedback with the clean, edgeless design of a capacitive touch panel

  • Industry-first capacitive multi-touch interface: interactive gestures (tap, flick, swipe and spread), made popular by smartphones and tablets, make it easy to scroll through lists, enlarge maps or search for favorites

  • Industry-first natural speech recognition: lets consumers speak as they would in conversation and not with awkward commands and sequences. This makes it easier to recall stored media or input navigation destinations

The heart of CUE is an 8-inch LCD touch screen that resembles a tablet’s screen by using large, easy-to-reach icons to execute commands. CUE is meant to interconnect with the car owner's smartphone or iPod, by channeling the information available on those devices, and also offers the expected functions on a car navigation/multimedia system, like maps for weather or directions, AM/FM/HD and XM radio, etc. etc.

Pandora (NYSE:P) will also be incorporated into the CUE system, making Cadillac Pandora's twelve automotive partner.

While resistive touchscreens can be found in many vehicles, mainly due to their durability and low cost, Cadillac is finally bringing a fully capacitive touchscreen (similar to most tablets and smartphones we are used to) to the car industry. There are several advantages to this choice, as well as engineering challenges.

In this article we will mainly look at what the introduction of haptics may mean for Cadillac and, to a larger degree, for the whole automotive vertical, and its implications for some touch screen related companies.

Improving safety by overcoming distractions is a key problem in the industry, especially since audio and visual feedback can be quite ineffective.

Here is a quote taken from LapTop Mag about CUE's usability:

Including haptic feedback with a touchscreen display would seem like a no brainer at this point, but Cadillac is the first to include it as part of an in-dash infotainment system. During our hands on we tried scrolling through a list of XM Radio stations and found that the haptic feedback was quick and responsive without feeling overwhelming. It made scrolling through lists and selecting various settings feel much more natural.

The key point on adding haptics in cars is to give the driver an additional confirmation that a command is being carried out. Several studies prove that adding tactile feedback improves the driver's capacity to keep eyes on the road, while operating on the car's infotainment or navigation system.

Here is another comment from Wired:

Cadillac strips down the typical cluttered dashboard electronic interface, reducing radio and entertainment controls to four physical buttons. All of the buttons are haptic-feedback enabled, which means you’ll feel a pulse of vibration to let you know that you’ve activated a button. The idea is that the driver spends less time fumbling with the dashboard controls, and more time paying attention to the road.

“We’ve seen things from competitors that are almost like you’ve got a typewriter in your car,” said executive director of interior design Dave Lyon in an interview. “It’s way too distracting.”

Cadillac CUE may be an industry first, but this doesn't mean haptic technology has never been used in the automotive sector – it is actually relatively common in rotary knobs from luxury brands.

Immersion Corporation (NASDAQ:IMMR) is the leading innovator in haptics technology with over 1,200 issued or pending patents. Its direct or indirect licensees in the automotive industry include BMW, Daesung (supplier to Hyundai and Kia), Mercedes, Lexus, Bentley, Visteon (NYSE:VC), Alps, Volkswagen and a few others. Its chip partners are companies like Atmel (NASDAQ:ATML), Cypress Corporation (NASDAQ:CY), Texas Instruments (NASDAQ:TXN), Imagis and Renesas, most of them active in the touchscreen market also with specific offerings for the automotive sector.

While some companies, like BMW, Mercedes and Lexus, have already been using haptics in their rotary knobs, most licensees that have been testing haptics in touchscreens are supposed to hit the market (pdf) in 2012 and forward.

Another example, in the high end market, of a company studying to incorporate haptics in its new models is Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) with its Model S, that will also include a 17” touchscreen that should incorporate Immersion's technology, as reported during the company's Q1 2009 conference call.

The automotive sector is relatively slow in introducing new technologies, for example if compared with the advances in touchscreen technology achieved by handsets producers.

The product development process for automobiles is very lengthy, taking sometimes longer than four years – which explains, in part, the different success achieved by Immersion in its mobility and automotive verticals, with the first already representing about 50% of revenue and the second just about 6% of 2010 revenue.

Cadillac's endorsement of haptics, and the expected positive feedback it might create among opinion leaders and consumers, may represent an inflection point capable of creating more interest around the technology, and contribute toward accelerating the adoption of Immersion's IP across the vertical – an interesting catalyst for the company's forecasted growth in the next few years.

Disclosure: I am long IMMR.

Source: Cadillac's CUE Brings Haptics Under The Spotlight