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BMW wins the future with HoloActive Touch controls

For its CES technology demonstration, BMW created an image that appears to float in the air, react to touch inputs and even give haptic feedback to the user.

In BMW's HoloActive Touch system, these graphics appear to float above the console.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET Roadshow

When BMW announced last year it would bring some sort of holographic control interface to CES, I was skeptical. Today, I got to use an interface that delivers on BMW's promise and more.

The technology, called HoloActive Touch, creates what looks like a floating graphic over the console. For BMW's demonstration, these graphics typically showed binary buttons, such as on and off. Touching either button with my finger not only controlled the features that showed up on BMW's Inside Future concept's screen, but also sent a palpable sensation to my finger, a slight vibration that confirmed the touch.

Extraordinarily, HoloActive Touch works. Each time I touched the floating graphic, the system reacted perfectly.

The graphics themselves don't have to be simple, either. At one point during the demo, a simulated incoming phone call summoned a full color photograph of a person. More surprising, the imagery was visible from a reasonable range of viewing angles and I could even photograph it.

It may look like something out of science fiction, but the technology to achieve HoloActive Touch is not so far-fetched. It uses three main components: a projector, a camera and a speaker. The projector sits in a panel on the console and makes the images appear to float in the air.

The camera, similar to the one used to enable gesture control in the latest BMW 7-series and 5-series cars, captures the motions of pointing at the graphics. When it recognizes a gesture, it activates the appropriate response in the system, such as stopping or playing a movie.

To generate the haptic feedback, the feeling of actually having touched something, a subsonic speaker mounted in the console fires a pulse. Impressively, that pulse felt localized to my finger tip when I touched the floating graphic.

BMW HoloActive

Even from outside the car, the holographic display remains visible over the console.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET Roadshow

BMW considers HoloActive a potential future form of its current iDrive control system, which lets drivers set navigation and digital audio, among other car features.

Although BMW brought HoloActive Touch to CES as a concept, a spokesperson said the company was devoted to making it a reality. And given the components behind the technology and how well it worked as a concept, it could certainly come out as a production feature in the next couple of years.

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