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A touch of the future with BMWA touch of the future with BMW

A touch of the future with BMW

9 min reading time
BMW designer Felix Staudacher talks about new, engaging ways of interacting with technology through touch, while BMW robotics expert Mohsen Kaboli describes how the vehicle itself learns to feel through "tactile intelligence".

9 February 2024

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Mohsen Kaboli completed his doctorate at the Chair of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence at the Technical University of Munich and now holds 20 patents. He and his team have spent five years working in Garching near Munich on researching the human sense of touch and recreating it digitally. The BMW Group has its “Early Phase Development” division based in Garching. The offices here do not have normal doors, but garage doors. Instead of the usual nameplates and abbreviations are names like “Interior of the Future” (➜ Read also: BMW Vision Neue Klasse: experience the future now). And behind them are prototypes and design studies, VR glasses, sketches, fabric samples, steering wheels, and gearsticks.

Mohsen KaboliMohsen Kaboli
The sense of touch is the first and most important human sense to perceive the environment.
Mohsen Kaboli

Head of RoboTact Team & BMW AI Robotic Lab at BMW Group

What makes the sense of touch so special that researchers want to recreate it digitally? “The sense of touch is the first and most important human sense to perceive the environment,” says Kaboli. It develops in the womb earlier than all other senses – at just seven to eight weeks. The sense of touch is our contact with the world; we need it to feel the limits of our body and to learn proprioception, or spatial awareness. Even someone who has been blind from birth can perceive the shape, weight, and textures of objects through the sense of touch, creating a realistic three-dimensional image of the sensed object in the brain. This happens through millions of receptors under the skin, our largest sensory organ. They perceive every stimulus, react to pressure differences, vibrations, touch, heat and cold, measure the stimulus and pass the information on to our brain for processing.

Without touch, we would not be able to find our way in the world, even though we can see, hear, smell and taste. The sense of touch is also crucial for our thinking and intelligence; it enables us from early childhood to distinguish objects from each other and to understand abstract relationships.

When you stroke this jacquard fabric, its tactile intelligence is revealed, and it can be operated like a touchscreen to carry out certain functions.When you stroke this jacquard fabric, its tactile intelligence is revealed, and it can be operated like a touchscreen to carry out certain functions.

When you stroke this jacquard fabric, its tactile intelligence is revealed, and it can be operated like a touchscreen to carry out certain functions.

Why driving should appeal to all senses

Felix Staudacher is responsible for the design of the control elements of all BMW Group brands. Operating elements such as switches, knobs, levers and buttons. Anything that can be pushed, pulled or turned in the vehicle. He is also responsible for the lighting design and the olfactory experience within the vehicles. “The more senses we connect with, the more intense the experience becomes. If we manage to embrace all seven senses, the experience becomes firmly emotionally anchored,” he says.

Vehicles are emotive products. People spend a lot of time in the car. Staudacher aims to design details in a car that transform the detail into experiences. Designing surfaces and materials that are a pleasure to interact with, a pleasure to touch. A pleasure to operate.

Felix StaudacherFelix Staudacher
If we limit a product to only serving an immediately obvious purpose, it won’t become an emotional product.
Felix Staudacher

Head of Physical User Experience at BMW Group

What makes an emotive product? That depends on the associations it evokes. “Each of us has our own playful instinct,” he says. There’s still a child in all of us. You can see that in small gestures; many people play with the ends of their hair when they are thinking. Drum the tabletop with their fingers. Play with their hands. Tap their feet. Gestures that we perform subconsciously often have a conscious emotional component. Their importance must not be overlooked with digital progress. People have a need for the tactile. For touch, for emotion, for playfulness in the midst of everyday life. That’s how it should be in your car.

The prototype of a steering wheel in which the technology remains in the background and functions only appear at the moment of use.The prototype of a steering wheel in which the technology remains in the background and functions only appear at the moment of use.

The prototype of a steering wheel in which the technology remains in the background and functions only appear at the moment of use.

The joy of control

Where do you find these materials that we like to touch – and how do you use them in the vehicle? To answer this question, Staudacher explains, you first have to put aside pure functionality. He looks for the aesthetics of a material first and not for its utility. Only then does he look at where it can make sense to use it. This is how the exclusive iDrive Controller in the center console of the BMW iX was created. Aluminum and plastic would have been the obvious choice, because, after all, it is “only” a rotary switch. Instead, Staudacher opted for a wooden surface for the central control panel. With cut crystal glass on top. Wood and glass are surfaces we like to touch. They also feel high quality to many people.

The combination of wood and glass in the iDrive Controller of the BMW iX particularly appeals to our sense of touch.The combination of wood and glass in the iDrive Controller of the BMW iX particularly appeals to our sense of touch.

The combination of wood and glass in the iDrive Controller of the BMW iX particularly appeals to our sense of touch.

Design with flair

The feeling that Staudacher’s designs represent is something his BMW colleague Mohsen Kaboli wants to implement in the vehicle with the help of artificial intelligence. It’s about simplicity and comfort, imparted through and by technology. Staudacher and Kaboli have a common desire to preserve humanity and our emotions in the digital space. Eschewing pure functionality and efficiency in favor of the greatest possible experience for all the senses.

Staudacher and Kaboli are after the same goal, only from different worlds of thought: they want to integrate the digital into analogue materials. For example, by wrapping sensors in fabric or incorporating LED effects into wooden surfaces. “Modernity can also emerge when we know something is missing, or when things come together that have not been seen together before,” says Staudacher.

Like light and fabric. Light takes on a new role in the vehicle; in the past, its function was to illuminate something, to indicate a piece of information. Today, we interact with light, it emotionalizes and creates an ambience – and it provides aesthetics. “We are trying to free it from the confines of the screen. Light and fabric meld together to become something new.” In this way, he wants to move away from touchscreens and cold surfaces towards illuminated mats, foils, and fibers in control elements such as door handles, switches, and dials. “What if you ran your hand over the instrument panel and the light started to follow your movement?” ponders Staudacher. “No one could resist playing around with it.”

The aesthetically pleasing interplay of different structures in this design study is enhanced by a lively play of light that shimmers through the textile covering of the center console.The aesthetically pleasing interplay of different structures in this design study is enhanced by a lively play of light that shimmers through the textile covering of the center console.

The aesthetically pleasing interplay of different structures in this design study is enhanced by a lively play of light that shimmers through the textile covering of the center console.

Technology in the interests of people

Mohsen Kaboli is pursuing a similar mission for what he calls the “humanization of technology”. But with sensors instead of light elements. He is developing a cognitive seat that could appear in BMW vehicles in just a few years. At first sight, the seat looks like a conventional car seat. However, the entire seat surface and the associated center console are fitted with thousands of tactile sensors that replicate the human sense of touch. They react to touch, to pressure and temperature differences. A car seat fitted with tactile sensors detects the exact position and size of legs, back and shoulders, and the distribution of body weight.

Providing these sensors with a database and equipping them with artificial intelligence brings them to life. The seat identifies whether a passenger has an unhealthy posture or orthopedic problems and automatically corrects the seating position. It detects whether the occupant is sweating or shivering and regulates the temperature accordingly – individually for each body zone.

The secret of the tactile, intelligent surface lies in the woven-in pressure-sensitive sensors – a kind of electronic skin for the car’s interior.The secret of the tactile, intelligent surface lies in the woven-in pressure-sensitive sensors – a kind of electronic skin for the car’s interior.

The secret of the tactile, intelligent surface lies in the woven-in pressure-sensitive sensors – a kind of electronic skin for the car’s interior.

Interaction between man and machine

“In the future, the armrest will be able to measure pulse, blood pressure and body temperature,” Kaboli explains. He speaks of “human-robot collaboration”. This technology is already in use in medical technology today. The machine-made sense of touch of a prosthesis as an extension of the wearer’s own feeling for their body. “I want people to lose their fear of artificial intelligence and realize that it is there to help us,” explains Kaboli. The future belongs to us humans, not to the machines – Mohsen Kaboli and Felix Staudacher are of one mind on this.

Author: Verena Beck; Art: Lucas Lemuth, Verena Aichinger; Photos: Amos Fricke, Roderick Aichinger

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