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©Volkswagen AG

Holodeck instead of a raft of buttons

Jul 2, 2021

Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence (AI) – things that used to be science fiction in films are increasingly becoming a reality in the automotive sector. Free-floating controls, be it for the sound system, air-conditioning or navigation: While holograms haven't yet made it into series manufacturing, they are thrilling visitors at sectoral meetings and trade fairs.

In this instance, we are not talking about scratches in the paintwork, caused by inappropriate care or incorrect use of a buffing machine and cut into the car's finish - also referred to as (abrasion) holograms. We are talking about the technology we have marveled at in films and TV series such as Star Trek – virtual worlds on holodecks, for example, or the AI-based holodoc, healing sick patients from completely different species. In our world, in-car holograms could soon replace existing control features: They float freely in space and, if you touch them, they select a playlist, adjust the volume, or turn the heating up.

The balls move towards the person speaking to the  Intelligent Personal Assistant © BMW
The balls move towards the person speaking to the Intelligent Personal Assistant © BMW

Hovering balls of light

BMW has taken a step in this direction this spring, with the next iteration of its Intelligent Personal Assistant: The assistant is able to act in a context-related manner and can take the on-board situation into account while communicating with passengers. In the video for the world premiere of the "all-new BMW iDrive", the Munich-based manufacturer and IAA MOBILITY exhibitor puts the next-generation Intelligent Personal Assistant on show. It reveals itself in the form of balls of light on the display, seemingly hovering in space and conducting intelligent conversation – just as we are familiar with from science-fiction films. Even if the balls, of various sizes and differing brightnesses, are not floating freely around in the interior but are visible on the cockpit's central screen ­– what is being visualized here is a human-like response that allows the dialog with the artificial intelligence to appear wholly natural. The balls move when the Intelligent Personal Assistant is responding to being spoken to by the car's passengers. Employing the shy-tech principle, the animation is only displayed when the Intelligent Personal Assistant is called up. The new iDrive is being deployed in the BMW iX, which is set to be available from the end of 2021.

A non-physical user interface

However, free-floating controls have also already been developed. BMW exhibited HoloActive Touch as early as 2017 at CES Las Vegas, as a component in the BMW i Inside Future study. A user interface with entirely non-physical operating controls, it is practically a touchscreen, floating in space and giving haptic feedback if you touch it – a tingle giving the same kind of sensation as the hum of a bass box in the disco. HoloActive Touch was also used to control the BMW Connected services.

Similar to a head-up display, the display image is created through skillful use of reflection – with freely-configurable controls alongside the steering wheel, at center console height. The driver's hand movements – particularly the position of the finger-tips – are recorded by a camera. As soon as the finger touches the virtual button, the associated function is triggered ­– for example, BMW Connected services.

The HoloActive Touch in the BMW i Inside Future study is a touchscreen floating in the interior © BMW
The HoloActive Touch in the BMW i Inside Future study is a touchscreen floating in the interior © BMW

Cube-shaped playlists in the air

Volkswagen has similarly developed a holography module. It was fitted in the Golf GTI Aurora apprentice show car and exhibited at the Wörthersee Convention 2019. The car was fitted with a 3,000-Watt boom box, with the sound system operated via hologram. This floats above the hardware, which is installed in the trunk. Cubes suspended in the air contain playlists. The volume control is projected freely into the space. Start, stop and pause buttons look like the familiar controls on your home stereo system – only that they, too, float in the air. Here, once again, a fingertip is all you need to activate a function. You don't need 3D glasses to see the hologram surfaces, and no special sensor gloves or joysticks to operate them.

Precisely how the system works is not something that Volkswagen has revealed, only that the floating image is created using software algorithms and optical engineering modules, and is a patented Volkswagen technology developed in-house.

The great thing about it is that the module can be removed in a few simple steps, and can then be set up next to the car, for instance, and used like a DJ deck controlling the car's sound system. 

To choose a playlist, just tip with your finger on the cube in the air © Volkswagen AG
To choose a playlist, just tip with your finger on the cube in the air © Volkswagen AG

Holograms to match the trend in interiors

The trend in automobile interiors is away from buttons and controls. Touchscreens have conquered the cockpit. For example, if the shy tech principle is adopted then you can only see the controls if your hand brushes over the place where they are positioned. Increasingly, displays are projected into the head-up display on the windshield. The interior comes across as pared-back, tidied up, minimalist. Holograms continue this trend: They appear when they are needed. When not needed, you don't see them.

Holograms and holography, as part of Augmented Reality, are no longer science fiction – for example, we now have holographic optical elements (HOE) in head-up displays. They have been used in fighter planes since the 1940s, and are now also used in civil aviation. They allow pilots to maintain their head position because all the relevant information is projected into their field of vision.

The Dresden-based start-up SeeReal Technologies developed a hologram for a Head-up-Display. © Volkswagen AG
The Dresden-based start-up SeeReal Technologies developed a hologram for a Head-up-Display. © Volkswagen AG

Manufacturers and tech companies working together

Volkswagen has a stake in the Dresden-based start-up SeeReal Technologies, which develops processes for displaying three-dimensional images capable of being viewed without devices such as 3D glasses or head-mounted displays. The company also markets 3D display solutions. Hologram telephony and free-floating computer games or films are also imaginable in the foreseeable future. Maybe we will soon be creating our own in-car holodecks – or simply calling up the holodoc if the kids are getting bored during the journey.

(Stagephoto © Volkswagen AG)

IAA MOBILITY is transforming itself from a pure car show to an international mobility platform with four pillars: The Summit, the Conference, the “Blue Lane” and the downtown Munich Open Space. Under the slogan of “What will move us next”, it stands for the digital and climate-neutral mobility of the future. From 7 to 12 September 2021, the car, bike and tech industries come together at IAA MOBILITY in Munich.

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