Forestry machines are highly complex and demanding machines to operate. It takes up to 5 years of practice for a driver to become efficient enough to become profitable. It's a highly monotonous and demanding job and it's hard to find good drivers. The manufacturer of these machines are working on ways to improve the machines to increase productivity. One way is to introduce computer aided driving and the long term goal is fully autonomous machines. We where asked to look at the crane operations of an forwarder and envision a concept for 2020.
The final concept is called ReConnect and is a UX concept for the forwarder cabin. Creating the experience required different modalities and different control mapping. Various senses and components were used in order to make the feedback more qualitative rather than quantitative and to make the control unit and transition intuitive.
Light was used in two ways. Firstly, an LED strip was used to indicate the level of automation. It is placed on the control, where it will always be in driver’s peripheral vision. It shows the level of automation and also gives warning by blinking when manual control is required. Secondly, interior lights were included in this transition too, in order to indicate the shift of the focus. They are brighter in the early stages and will dim out with levelling up which allows environmental lights to be more dominant in the end.
The same as other modalities, sound is used for enhancing the experience. The sound of the engine will be louder in the manual stages, which will also contribute a lot to the feeling of operating a powerful machine. However, it will fade away gradually and leave its place to natural sounds as driver stays in the flow and levels up. Also when manual control is required, having the engine sound back increases the understandability of the situation
The working principle of the control unit is very much like a seesaw. Considering one end as the control and the other end as the tip of the crane, perceptively it creates a direct mapping in terms of movements. Additionally the control unit gives tactile feedback that is expressed in various ways; vibrations, pressure of the grapple and heaviness of crane movements. As automation increases, tactile feedbacks decrease making the controls feel lighter.
Expected further developments towards automation within the forest industry would weaken the connection of the driver with the machine and especially with the nature around him. This contradicts with the driver’s motivation to perform his profession: he likes the feeling of controlling a tough machine but meanwhile he enjoys the silence and beauty of the forest. The proposed concept aims to restrengthen the connection the driver has with the machine and nature, while considering future developments towards more automation. This is achieved by redesigning the transition from a manual to automated interaction.
Among all operators we interviewed, including young students in training, we noticed common interest and motivations. All operators were fascinated by the idea of being in control of a powerful machine. They took pride in their own problem solving skills and being able to servicing the machine themselves. On top of that was a passion for forrest and hunting, often developed during their childhood. They had little interest in information technology. To them, much of the technology adopted by the mass, is complex and unnecessary. Because of an information overload the drivers are already more and more disconnected from nature. In the future we expected an additional disconnection from nature because of automation. Despite more automation, we envisioned a solution that reconnects the driver to the machine and to the nature. We thought this will lead to happier, better motivated drivers and an increased efficiency as a result.
Integrating automation while satisfying the driver’s needs was a challenge. The concept aims to achieve this by connecting increased automation to focus on nature more. As the driver performs repetitive tasks in the manual stage, he slowly enters a nature stage and the computer takes over repetitive tasks. The driver’s experience in both stages is fundamentally different. Whereas in the manual stage the controls are heavy and shaky, the sound of the engine is loud and the interior light is bright, in the nature state the controls become lighter, the engine sound is replaced by nature sounds and the interior light fades out.
As long as the driver stays in the nature flow, the machine will continue leveling up towards a fully automated stage. However, if the driver spots a mistake or the machine requires assistance, he grabs the handles with both hands forcing the machine to manual operation.
With this concept driver can enjoy operating a powerful machine with less cognitive load and less repetitive movements, taking full benefits of automation. Besides that, he can enjoy being in the nature and focus more on the bigger picture, as the machine provides assistance and feedback intuitively.
Contextual inquiry was done during a field trip to the forest. User interviews and observations on both the forwarder and harvester machine operators were combined in order to understand the context in a broader sense. Information that was gathered included the mapping of the joystick, the user’s tasks and his motivations. Besides that, the current interface was carefully observed.
Additional contextual research was done during a visit to the school of forestry. We had the opportunity to talk to students and a teacher who was also a driver. Open user interviews were conducted with the future operators. It gave insight in what difficulties the students face while learning, especially using the simulator. Besides that we got a better understanding of an optimal and efficient crane movement and how the environment influences the interaction with the crane. This was being explained by the teacher using a miniature forwarder model. The visit also enabled us to confirm some of the insights we got from the first field trip.
The information collected during the context research was processed in various forms, for example a task analysis. This enabled us to see potential areas for improvement. Besides that, the user interviews gave us a good idea of the motivations of current and future drivers to become a professional operator. We had a couple of ideation sessions which we later grouped in to categories.
The next step was to prototype the ideas both as a medium to personally explore and to communicate to experts. Various prototyping methods were done ranging from role playing to creating quick video prototypes. The first iteration of prototyping resulted in three prototypes. Each prototype aimed to make the forwarder achieve more continuous crane movements. These three ideas were further explored during another prototyping session. At the end of the project, the final concept was prototyped too.