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A touch too much?

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Touch-screen technology, so popular in today’s devices, might have limitations on a boat or other moving platform, some designers say

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When talking about technology’s impact on boating, yacht designer Bill Prince says the industry might want to take note of what Ford Motor Co. has learned about touch-screen technology’s limitations in a vehicle.

In June, amid customer dissatisfaction with its MyFord Touch “infotainment” technology, Ford announced it will return to traditional analog knobs for such functions as volume and stereo tuning. Drivers found it difficult to change radio stations and adjust volume. Ford’s redesigned control panels will use simpler screens and include more physical buttons and knobs.

“I hope the marine industry and those of us planning helm layouts for production boats heed that lesson well because, in a boat or any moving vehicle, you can go too far with [touch screens],” says Prince, president of Bill Prince Yacht Design in Port Washington, Wis. “In a boat, you deal with foul weather more directly. Try using your iPhone after washing your hands. What’s worse than being in an emergency on a boat in a storm and you are soaking wet and you can’t control the ship’s systems because the touch screen cannot sense your finger because it’s wet?”

Touch screens and other electronic integration technology can streamline the helm and simplify the operation of systems, says Doug Zurn, president of Zurn Yachts in Marblehead, Mass. But their incorporation at the command station may take some fine-tuning. “[Touch screens] are by no means perfect and often overcomplicated, with too many options,” he says. “Do we really need 10 different ways to read depth? I’m of the old KISS school — Keep It Simple, Stupid or Keep It Stupid Simple.”

Trade Only editor Bill Sisson wrote a recent blog about technological advances in the marine world that resemble those in the auto industry. One reader was quick to call into question the use of touch screens on smaller powerboats. “Will a touch screen be practical on a smaller boat bouncing in rough seas? I envision hitting the wrong spot on the screen or mashing my finger into it coming off a wave.”

Good point. In cars, the driver generally must keep a higher level of attention on what’s ahead than a boat driver, but a car also delivers a smoother ride. “Boaters not only have to deal with weather but also overall movement and vibration of a boat under way,” Prince says.

All of these factors should be thought through, say Prince and Zurn. And Volvo Penta, which recently introduced the Glass Cockpit touch-screen helm system, says it has done so. The Glass Cockpit collects all navigation information and delivers it via one or more touch-screen displays from 8 to 19 inches. Volvo Penta teamed with Garmin on the system, which just about wipes away the need for physical gauges at the helm station, giving the skipper an experience similar to driving an automobile, says Volvo Penta.

“There is always the possibility to add a remote input device in case you would feel the need for fixed buttons,” says Fredrik Celander, Glass Cockpit chief product manager for Volvo Penta Global. “The device can be placed in an ergonomic position for better reach in rough conditions. One can also argue that soft buttons can be made larger and more dedicated than physical buttons, where the designers often become forced to fit two or even more functions in the same button because of limited space.”

Glass Cockpit will be found mostly on larger boats, says Celander, “but the system works fine in smaller applications, too.” Volvo Penta in June held a press event in Sweden showcasing its new engines and technologies, including Glass Cockpit. The smallest boat with the system was a Targa 32. Other boats were 44, 52, 55 and 70 feet.

The helms on these boats were enclosed, but even boats with more exposed layouts should be OK, says Celander. “Wet fingers or wet display should not be a problem,” he says. “The displays are designed and tested for outdoor use.”

And what about reliability and propulsion and electrical issues? “Engines and drivelines will work, no matter if the monitors are switched on or off,” he says. “There are fixed buttons for driveline functions on the engine controls and joystick, and also separate alarm symbols and buzzers in the control head, so the issue would be loss of navigation system. But that is no different from a standalone plotter. Control of engines is not lost should the monitors for any reason fail.”

If navigation loss is a concern, you can use multiple displays for redundancy, says Celander. It appears Volvo Penta and Garmin have hashed out all the possibilities.

“Glass Cockpit gives you a greatly enhanced overview and control of both navigation and engine, all in one place,” says Marcia Kull, vice president of marine sales North America, Volvo Penta of the Americas. “It also provides a cleaner dashboard, which makes it easier for the driver to concentrate on what’s important at the moment.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.

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