The driving simulator in the basement of the Audi Electronics Center in Ingolstadt is not just a bodyshell with seats in it, but an almost complete car – an Audi A8 with only the front end and the engine missing. Above its roof is a tall structure containing four large film projectors. Their images are shown on a curved wall that surrounds the car in a 240-degree segment of a circle. To complete the 360-degree image, two further projectors are aimed at a screen behind the car.
On this particular day the big picture is a four-lane highway with only light traffic on it. “Our test candidate will be asked to follow the car ahead,” says Kristin Dettmer, whose responsibility in the Development Operating Concept department is the ‘touchpad’. “The occupant of the front passenger seat will then ask him to perform certain tasks: dialing a telephone number, choosing a new destination on the navigation system or playing a selection from the media list.
None of these tasks is difficult, but each step in the process calls for a certain degree of concentration. The driver wears glasses into which two miniature cameras are integrated: one of them films the surrounding area, the other the pupil of the driver’s eye. Later, the Audi development team analyzes the recorded images with the aid of special software. This gives them detailed information about how long the driver took for each of the steps on the MMI monitor, and how often he looked at the control pad.
Audi attaches great importance to car control. Ten years ago, when the MMI system was first introduced in the Audi A8, the brand led the field in relation to its competitors. In 2010 the touchpad – the ‘MMI touch’ – was also premiered in the Audi A8. It was the next major step forward, and has now been combined with the turn-and-push control in the new Audi A3. The aim is to maintain this design leadership: a vast number of new functions are now becoming possible, especially in the infotainment area, and will call for even more intelligent control concepts.
All development work is centered on an unalterable Audi principle: operation of the controls should be so intuitive that the driver’s task is made easier, not more complicated. This is the guideline that governs Kristin Dettmer’s project too: further development of the touchpad for Multitouch operation using several fingers.
The touchpads available for many current Audi models are intended for single-touch operation and are therefore especially suitable for the input of letters and numerals, using one finger. But Audi plans to use Multitouch technology for future generations of these devices. Using more than one finger opens up entirely new prospects. The system has already been extended to permit two fingers to be used when searching quickly in the navigation map, and three fingers make it quicker to scroll through long media lists. The touchpad measures twelve by eight centimeters, which most users find sufficient.
“For the new control system we have also revised the menu logic and the screen graphics,” Kristin Dettmer explains. “Until now they were entirely based on the turn-and-push knob and its rotary movements. Now there is to be greater emphasis on the horizontal and vertical elements, though we don’t intend to dispense with the adjusting knob entirely, since it will definitely remain the ideal device for selecting a certain number of functions.”
Many test results, especially from the driving simulator, the digital ‘surface table’ and an Audi A7 Sportback used for actual road testing, have contributed to the success of this development work, which has been in progress for three years. The question is always: how well do the test candidates cope with the Multitouch control principle?
“The public got to know the principle when the iPad and iPhone were introduced,” says Kristin Dettmer. “Of course our test ‘guinea pigs’ differ: older people in particular are rather hesitant when invited to operate the controls with several fingers. Our system is therefore basically suitable for single-finger operation as well. Many people start that way, then discover how easy it is to move on to the next levels. It’s this ‘joy of use’ that we’re trying to communicate.”
Audi’s thinking on future control concepts is going ahead in a number of different directions. One of these focuses on innovative touchpad technology that sends a tactile response back to the user’s fingers. Another project concentrates on improving voice control and a third uses innovative gesture control for the head-up displays. Here too the development staff headed by Bernhard Senner is working on a very advanced principle, of which a model already exists.
Driver and front passenger have their own head-up displays, for the front passenger it shows digital journey guide, news and pictures from video telephone calls. There is also a third, central projection visible to all occupants; here too the images appear to be on the windshield.
The driver’s side only displays the relevant information in the form of symbols, still images and simple animations. Some of them, for example the navigation arrows, are imaged created by a novel contactless technology, and seem to float directly above the actual surroundings. The passenger’s viewing area, on the other hand, has access to all video functions. In this case the image uses the new DLP (digital light processing) technology, which boosts brightness and contrast.
Bernhard Senner has an example that illustrates the idea behind the new technological principle. “If the front passenger finds an interesting destination in his digital travel guide, for instance a restaurant, he can make a simple, rapid ‘wipe’ gesture to move the content as a still image into the center zone. If the driver then makes a similar gesture to accept the destination into his own head-up display, he can then input it to the navigation route.” A small camera detects the hand movements and transmits the appropriate signals to the system.