BMW wants to make interacting with a car as natural as talking to a friend

BMW iNext concept

BMW predicts poking a screen to get directions will soon become as outdated as a flip phone. The German automaker traveled to MWC2019 to demonstrate its new, artificial intelligence-powered Natural Interaction technology, which empowers drivers with three onboard means of communications that make interacting with a car as straightforward as talking to a friend.

Natural Interaction builds on technologies such as voice commands and gesture recognition that are already available in select series-produced BMW models, like the 7 Series, and it adds a forward-looking feature (pun intended) called gaze recognition that tracks the driver’s eyes. Drivers don’t need to tell the car how they want to communicate; the software automatically detects instructions, and executes them immediately. Someone driving alone can say “I’m cold” to turn the heater up. If four passengers are having a conversation, or if the radio is on full blast, the driver will likely prefer to turn the heat up with a hand gesture.

BMW noted Natural Interaction lets the passengers perform a variety of functions including opening or closing the windows and the sunroof, adjusting the air vents, or selecting an icon on the screen that displays the infotainment system. They can also point to a button and ask the car what it does. Artificial intelligence helps the car learn each user’s habits. This technology promises to make driving more convenient, and it paves the way for the lounge-like interiors that designers often create for autonomous concept cars.

“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 toward the driver’s position and occupants will have more freedom,” said Christoph Grote, the senior vice president of BMW Group Electronics.

Linking Natural Interaction with connected services expands the system’s usefulness well outside of the car. For example, the driver can point to a restaurant in his or her field of vision and ask the car for more information, like its opening hours or customer ratings. Looking ahead, BMW predicts Natural Interaction will tell drivers whether they’re allowed to park in a given spot, how much it will cost, and let them pay for it — all without pushing a button on the car’s dashboard or on a smartphone.

Natural Interaction is one of the technologies BMW will pack into the production version of the iNext concept it unveiled in 2018. It’s shaping up to be a rolling display of the company’s engineering might: it will be entirely electric, it will offer a high degree of autonomy, and it will feature what BMW proudly called “an interior of the future.” Look for the iNext — a name that likely won’t be retained — in showrooms in 2021.

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