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BMW concept replaces switches with a little hand-waving

With its i Vision Future Interaction concept unveiled at CES 2016, BMW shows how we might interact with our cars in the future through hand gestures.

BMW i Vision Future Interaction
BMW showed its i Vision Future Interaction concept at CES 2016, with its AirTouch gesture recognition technology.
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

This story is part of CES 2016. Our editors bring you complete CES 2016 coverage and scour the showroom floor for the hottest new tech gadgets around.

When navigation and connected systems showed up in cars, simple stereo and climate controls exploded into buttons and dials for voice command, controlling menus and selecting destinations, songs and people you wanted to call. With its i Vision Future Interaction concept car, unveiled at CES 2016, BMW is trying to reverse the button trend, while maintaining even more advanced digital connected technology.

As I sat in the driver's seat, I was impressed by its clean interior. Instead of iDrive controls on the console, as in current BMW cars, there was just a leather upholstered console cover. A wide, curved screen rose up from the dashboard on the right, while in front of me the steering wheel glowed with internal lighting, and the LCD instrument panel showed realistic-looking gauges.

How would I take charge of the screens on the right, when there were no buttons or dials?

Holding my hand up over the console, I moved it laterally, and the screens regions for navigation, music, phone and home control highlighted in sequence. Stopping on one, a row of submenu icons appeared, and with a flick up or down with my fingers I could choose each one.

Selecting a menu item involved a little physical contact with the car, pushing a concealed button integrated under the steering wheel cover, a pulsing light letting me know which part to push.

BMW i Vision Future Interaction

With AirTouch, I was able to navigate menus and choose navigation or music without touching a button or dial.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

This type of gesture control, which BMW calls AirTouch, was enabled by rows of sensors embedded in the dashboard which could track the location of my hand.

In truth, it lacked some precision, but it did feel very elegant, as if I was conducting a symphony. And in time, I would likely learn how to control the screens better.

AirTouch is just a concept at this point, but BMW has already released a limited gesture-control interface in its new 7-Series flagship sedan. However, that car maintains the buttons and dials we've come to know so well. I'm looking forward to when dashboards, consoles and steering wheels can be less cluttered.