BMW's virtual co-driver is helpful and charming – so do I have to be rude to it?

BMW iNext
All image credits: TechRadar

Are we too rude to our virtual assistants? It's not something that had really crossed my mind until I had the opportunity to try a demo of BMW's new Natural Interaction interface at At MWC 2019.

The system lets you operate your car using gesture, gaze and speech recognition, and will launch with the BMW iNext in 2021. It's very impressive, accurately detecting and interpreting commands, but there was just one problem for me: as a stuffy Brit, it made me feel a little bit impolite.

When it launches in the BMW iNext in 2021, Natural Interaction will be invisible: just gesture in mid-air, speak and the car will understand. For the demo, however, BMW had set up a mixed reality simulation of the experience. I was fastened into a headset and directed to an ‘elevator’ (in fact just a doorway connecting parts of the demo room), which transported me to the ground floor of a hotel, where my shiny new virtual iNext awaited.

I carefully got inside (I never saw the physical setup, but there were pedals, a steering wheel and a seat with haptic feedback) and pulled away. Then, as I moved onto a freeway, the car's soothing voice informed me it was taking over and began introducing me to the principles of Natural Interaction – and things got awkward.

BMW iNext

What's the magic word?

The first thing that struck me was that my virtual co-driver was nameless. Instead of addressing it, as you would Siri or Alexa, you just point a finger and start ordering it to do your bidding.

The final version of Natural Interaction will let you call the Intelligent Personal Assistant (as it's formally known) whatever you like. Dr Christophe Grote, senior vice president of electronics, suggested "Hey BMW" or "Hi Beamer". However, with gesture and gaze recognition, the car already knows when it’s being spoken to. There’s no actual need for a wake word – and that seemed strange. Like clicking your fingers in a restaurant to get the waiter’s attention, pointing and demanding felt like bad manners.

The demo encouraged a kind of childlike curiosity – but that of an irritating child. I jabbed a finger at virtual monuments and told the car to tell me about them, which it did, with the patience of a saintly parent. "What's that?" "Down!" "More information!" As my countrymen say, it just wasn't cricket.

Not everyone will have such hangups – but to be truly natural, perhaps there should be different cultural settings. I'd feel much more at home with a stuffier assistant who refused to respond unless I minded my Ps and Qs, could only be activated by saying “Sorry to bother you”.

BMW iNext

Are we nearly there yet?

After trying the demo, I had the opportunity to speak to Dr Fathi El-Dwaik, BMW's vice president of user interaction, human-machine interaction, and display and control concepts. Since the iNext will be sold in all major markets around the globe, I asked if his team had to bear in mind any cultural issues (like my British stuffiness).

He explained that BMW had indeed taken differences into account when creating Natural Interaction – particularly when it comes to gestures and facial expressions. However, he says his team found that many more factors were common all over the world.

“There are some differences between expressions and phrases, but we can take care of them,” he said.

After I jabbed a finger at a movie theater and demanded the car book me a ticket, it asked if I’d like to watch a movie trailer – not unlike a frazzled mother who’s tired of keeping the kids entertained. I answered ‘yes’ (mentally adding ‘please’) then felt the pedals move away from my feet. The virtual steering wheel and dashboard vanished, and I found myself in a screening of the next Mission Impossible. I removed the headset to find a BMW rep next to me with a tub of popcorn. I thanked her, smiling – and for me, that's the most natural interaction.

Even with accurate interpretation of gestures, speech and gaze, human-like communication is tricky to pull off – not just technologically, but also because 'natural' can mean very different things to different people.

Thank you for the ride, Beamer. Cheerio, and see you in 2021.

MWC (Mobile World Congress) is the world's largest showcase for the mobile industry, stuffed full of the newest phones, tablets, wearables and more. TechRadar is reporting live from Barcelona all week to bring you the very latest from the show floor. Head to our dedicated MWC 2019 hub to see all the new releases, along with TechRadar's world-class analysis and buying advice about your next phone.