Virtual instrument cluster or digital instrument cluster: What will it be?

I've blogged several times on the new generation of automotive instrument clusters, which replace mechanical gauges with software-controlled LCD displays. Almost invariably, I refer to these displays as digital instrument clusters. My employer, QNX Software Systems, which makes software for these displays, follows the same practice (see a recent press release for an example).

In every case, the display in question looks something like this:

As opposed to something like this:

Here's my problem: "digital cluster" is so 1980. It reeks of segment displays. It says that flashing digits constitute the prime visual characteristic of the device. Whereas the next-generation, LCD-based clusters I've been discussing are highly pictorial. They display icons, backup-camera video, navigation maps, and all kinds of other information. They can even reconfigure themselves according to road conditions or drive mode.

In fact, as the above example illustrates, these clusters often look like traditional physical displays — an illusion achieved through deft use of Adobe Flash, OpenGL ES, and other graphics technologies. That makes them virtual instrument clusters in my book.

Not everyone likes to call them virtual clusters, mind you. My colleague Andy Gryc, who knows more about these devices than I could ever hope to learn, says that "virtual" makes it sound like the cluster really isn't there. But to me, that's exactly the point. The cluster you see in front of you doesn't have a corporeal existence — it's an image, a trompe-l'œil.

What goes on beneath the display — realtime data collection, etc. — is still very real, of course, but the part you see is an illusion. An attractive illusion that offers many usability benefits over a traditional cluster, but an illusion nonetheless.

So what do you think? Is digital instrument cluster a massive misnomer? Am I just stirring up a tempest in a virtual teapot?

Postscript: For a (humorous) trip down memory lane, click here to check out an online gallery of 80s-era digital clusters.

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