Auto Tech

Audi and Disney collaborate on new type of media headed to CES

Exclusive: Audi and Disney have teamed up on an in-car stealth project that will be revealed at CES 2019. Is it AR? Is it VR? Here's what we know.

Audi

An integral part of the promise of self-driving cars is that autonomy will recover motorists' time so they can use it for other pursuits. Where we once had to busy ourselves with the mechanisms of driving, we'll suddenly have newfound time on our hands to relax, socialize, work, sleep or consume -- be it food or media content. Audi calls this newly recoverable time "The 25th Hour," and it's devoted much time and resources to thinking about it.

Perhaps to that end, Audi has exclusively revealed to Roadshow that it's partnering with The Walt Disney Company to develop what officials at the German automaker are calling a "new type of media" to take advantage of that newly recovered time. The two companies will reveal the technology they've created and their plans to bring it to market at the CES trade show in January.

Nils Wollny, Audi's head of digital business strategy and customer experience, confirms that his company approached Disney more than 18 months ago. "You might be familiar with their Imagineering division [Walt Disney Imagineering], they're very heavy into building experiences for customers. And they were highly interested in what happens in cars in the future," he told Roadshow in a phone interview on Saturday.

The resulting collaboration, with the marketing tagline "Audi Meets Disney," previewed in the teaser video above, isn't just a research program with the multimedia conglomerate's Los Angeles engineering arm, says Wollny. While Wollny can only speak on Audi's behalf, he did say "There will be a commercialization or business approach behind it [for Audi]. It's not something where two friends come together to [start] something vague, [and say,] 'Maybe it's not, maybe it is.' It's very specific. We [Audi] have a very specific plan." 

So what is this project, exactly? That's hard to say, as various company officials Roadshow spoke with remain cagey with specifics. Wollny says, "I'd call it a new media type that isn't existing yet that takes full advantage of being in a vehicle. What we've focused on is not a pure -- not at all a classic marketing partnership, [of the sort] that very often happens between automotive companies and media companies. We created something completely new together, and it's very technologically driven." 

In fact, it's not even immediately clear if this project is a system or platform for gaming, education, navigation, movies, music or something else entirely. 

When discussing the project, Wollny repeatedly referenced his company's recent Long Distance Lounge Concept, a pod-like monoform future Level 5 interior design study that blurs the lines between the outside world and the vehicle's cabin. In that concept, TFT foils embedded in the windows work like screens, allowing them to be viewed like conventional windows, or also feature digital overlays that provide information about the world outside that's rushing by. 

That vision of future media consumption may be a bit far afield for the first applications of this Audi-Disney media experience, however. Wollny also confirmed that this new media type doesn't hinge upon full autonomy, but it does require the robust data set that Audi has been developing over the last several years. 

"We are not just focusing on the future, I have to state," he said. "It's not one of these showcases you might have seen, or you might expect, that is focusing on the autonomous age, that involves a lot of modification of the vehicle. It's that's also relevant for the near future." Wollny went on to reference Asian countries -- especially China, where a relatively large segment of the population is still used to being chauffeured.

Audi's Long Distance Lounge Concept made use of smart surfaces and smart windows to let passengers interact with the outside world. Will Audi Meets Disney rely on the same tech?

Audi

Reading between the lines, it sounds like this new Audi-Disney media experience may, at least in the near term, take the form of some sort of interactive rear-seat multimedia experience, potentially involving augmented reality technology that involves not just what's inside a vehicle's cabin, but also the world outside, too. 

Whether the resulting tech takes the form of embedded TFT foil windows (as seen on the Long Distance Lounge concept), or something less exotic and expensive like AR glasses, VR headsets, rear seatback screens or smart surfaces remains unclear, but what Wollny is talking about doesn't sound like a simple video or music streaming service. It comes across like a service or technology that hinges upon leveraging big data and, almost certainly, 5G connectivity. "We have a very elaborate, very detailed data set, of course. We can break into technology or these fields of experiences of entertainment. You're on the right path," he said. 

Audi employees train on VR equipment

Audi is using VR to train new employees. Will it also use the tech in future customer cars?

Audi

It also doesn't sound like merely a new type of data pipe to give access to Disney's library of existing content -- movies, TV shows and so on. When I asked if this Audi-Disney media experience leverages The House That Mouse Built's legendary catalog, or if it's bespoke to the experience, Wollny replied, "I think I already gave you the answer when I said it's a new media type. I would like to leave it like this, because otherwise I spoil too much, I think."

Whatever this tech ends up being, it's clear it's being developed with a vehicle-based user in mind: "When you think about media categories today, they're best enjoyed outside the car. It's always a compromise if you consume them or watch them or experience them inside a car. Film is better in a cinema or in your home cinema. It's always a compromise in a vehicle," said Wollny. Referencing the need to stop watching a movie on an airplane upon final approach as an example, Wollny lamented, "Media form never fits travel time… it's never tailored to travel time."

Earlier in the same conversation, Wollny noted that that Audi's digitalization efforts now include very specific last-mile planning capabilities (including giving end-to-end navigation directions that include walking and public transit). This sort of capability would seem vital to enabling the sort of spacial and temporal information necessary to tailor an interactive multimedia experience to one's specific journey. 

Wollny is intimately familiar with Audi's new last-mile navigation capabilities -- he joined the German automaker three-and-a-half years ago to "build core digital competencies." As part of that remit, he manages digitizing Audi's core business, selling cars. That includes oversight of the brand's website, model configurator, the MyAudi app ecosystem, Audi On Demand mobility service and various connected car functions, among other things.

Audi's Nils Wollny heads the luxury automaker's digitalization efforts.

Audi

Without more information, it's hard to figure out the scope of the initiative's importance to the automaker, but when I suggested that it sounds like it could be the blueprint for an entirely new business, Wollny said, "That's fair to say." The executive also didn't dismiss the thought that a new media form like this could require -- or at least benefit from -- additional media partners, as well.

It's not clear when or how this tech will be made available to consumers. Will it simply be a normal option when configuring a new vehicle, like larger alloy wheels or an uprated audio system? Will it require dedicated hardware? Do new vehicles like Audi's forthcoming E-Tron electric SUV and its latest A8 flagship sedan already have the tech baked in? Wollny wouldn't say. Nor would he elaborate on whether he views this tech as a service, potentially accessed through a monthly subscription or microtransactions, as with many smartphone games.

This whole initiative started out as a "stealth project" of sorts. Describing the group as a "very small team of experts" involved in "a very dense and very intense close collaboration," Audi's experts worked at Disney's LA labs with their engineers "both on the product side as well as on the business side." The project went from Wollny and one of his direct reports to a group of 10, plus an extended development team. The program has full approval from Audi's board of directors, who have seen a prototype.

We likely won't know much more about what this tech turns out to be until CES 2019 begins in early January. But regardless of what sort of technology it ends up being, its development process -- a project that started as quiet, small-scale partnership with an outside firm -- sounds like a newly core way of doing things at Audi. 

"The times are over … where you do everything by yourself," says Wollny. "I think the [Dieselgate] crisis in general released a lot of energy within Audi … it basically brought us back to our roots. We want to still be a challenger brand taking up mobility challenges of the future," he said.

Update: 1:10PM PT: An earlier version of this story referred to this tech as "Audi meets Disney" as a working internal title for the project. The text has been clarified to reflect that that is not its proper name, which remains unknown. A separate passage has been updated to clarify that the commercialization intent of the project applies to Audi.