MWC 2019: BMW Gets Touchy-Feely With its Latest In-Car Innovations

By Rob Clymo on at

MWC isn’t just about smartphones, it’s got cars too. Just like CES, Barcelona’s biggest tech event now attracts automotive manufacturers who want to show off their latest innovations. This year, BMW had a slick and stylish booth that featured its latest whizz; Natural Interaction. It’s a neat variation on the theme that was showcased at CES earlier in the year, but with new and improved touchy feely bits added for good measure.

During the course of a virtual reality tour you get to drive a car, enjoy the ride as a passenger with the car doing the driving for you, and more besides. BMW wants to underline just how much we’ll soon be able to do from within the cockpit of ours cars using lots of different gestures and voice commands. As an example, we put the window down simply by pointing at it and saying ‘open’. The idea is that we’ll eventually be able to do pretty much everything control-wise using the direction of our digits and our voices.

Oh sure, the tour is a little bit rough around the edges. You begin by entering a room at the back of the BMW booth and someone talks you through the experience. Then it’s on with the headset and headphones and you’re into a virtual lift that takes you down to the ground floor, where your virtual vehicle pulls up, sans driver. Getting in to this is slightly clunky as you try and make the connection between what exists physically and what’s basically a digital image and all while managing an unwieldy VR headset on your noggin.

Nevertheless, once you’re in it’s cool, cosy and, well, a bit weird – in a fun way. The digital assistant tells you what to do, so the journey kicks off with a hands-on driving section. Not long after, the car takes over and you’re free to lift your foot off the accelerator pedal and take in the view around you. There are rolling hills, blue skies and other vehicles too. Spot a building that takes your interest and it’s just a case of pointing at it and you’ll get the full skinny on why it’s there and what’s inside.

Along the way there was also time to book a ticket to see the latest Mission Impossible movie, as well as taking in the trailer for it too, which appeared as if by magic where the windscreen used to be. Even more unexpected was the way you’re the told to take off the headset and you’re left sitting in a movie theatre, ready to watch the actual film itself. You can kind of see where all this is going, and, while it’s early days, BMW is doing a pretty good job of underlining how real and virtual world’s will soon collide.

Perhaps the highlight of the virtual tour was the way you could lift up one of your digitally-created hands and point with your finger in Lord Sugar fashion and bark ‘more information’, instead of ‘you’re fired!’ at those poor buildings and other points of interest along the way. It’s a neat trick and adds a strong whiff of augmented reality action to your journey.

In fact, this aspect of the concept could be mighty handy, because you could get on-the-spot advice, say, if you eyeball a restaurant that looks appealing. Point at it and an instant identification-stroke-internet-review might tell you to keep on driving. Or not. It’s all about giving the driver, and the other occupants, more choice and, perhaps, less need to actually drive as well.

What will people make of that whole ‘BMW – The Ultimate Driving Machine’ vision of the brand one wonders? If anything, BMW thinks the development of a ‘multimodal interaction’ aspect of owning one of its cars will only beef up the appeal. After all, most people are still keen to drive on curvaceous and deserted mountain roads, under their own steam. On the other hand, sitting in a choked city street going nowhere fast means this whole put-your-feet-up-relax-and-watch-movies thinking is easy to embrace. The perfect mix? Maybe.

“Customers should be able to communicate with their intelligent connected vehicle in a totally natural way,” explains Christoph Grote, Senior Vice President, BMW Group Electronics. “People shouldn’t have to think about which operating strategy to use to get what they want. They should always be able to decide freely – and the car should still understand them. BMW Natural Interaction is also an important step for the future of autonomous vehicles, when interior concepts will no longer be geared solely towards the driver’s position and occupants will have more freedom.”

BMW reckons that you’ll be able to tweak the system to suit your own personal preferences, so that using speech recognition and gestures you’ll be able to set up your interior space to pander to any whim. Interestingly, the carmaker says that you’ll even be able to point at buttons in the car and ask what they do. That’s going to be mighty handy for many of us who have looked at some controls in our cars and never quite got to the bottom of their actual functionality. Being baffled might be a thing of the past while being enlightened about your buttons could be the future.

During a round table discussion with Grote we raised the point that, given the way buttons in cars have worked so well over the years, is there really a need to have a window that goes up and down using a gesture instead? If it ain’t broke, why try and fix it, right? Grote acknowledged the point, and while he agreed there is currently still a need for good old physical buttons, the future could well be digital. It felt, there and then, that your favourite plastic knob in the car might actually be doomed.

And, amazingly, the first Natural Interaction functions will be available in the BMW iNEXT from 2021. That’s really quite soon.