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Impressive experiences and intuitive operation

Like the rest of the car, the Audi grandsphere concept’s¹ user interface, which allows occupants to communicate with the car, delivers a progressive experience. We talked to user interface designers Xenia Sichwardt and Bartos Scharmach about it.

10/22/2021 Text: Bernd Zerelles - Photo: Piotr Kożuch Reading Time: 8 min

¹The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

¹The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

Designer Bartos Scharmach inside the model of the Audi grandsphere concept’s¹ interior.
Designer Bartos Scharmach inside the model of the Audi grandsphere concept’s² interior. The MMI touchless control is clearly visible in the door.

²The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle. The automated driving functions shown are technologies currently under development, are not available for production vehicles and only work within system limits. All possible uses of the technical systems and functions shown represent only a possible concept and are dependent on the respective legal regulations in the relevant country.

²The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle. The automated driving functions shown are technologies currently under development, are not available for production vehicles and only work within system limits. All possible uses of the technical systems and functions shown represent only a possible concept and are dependent on the respective legal regulations in the relevant country.

Ms. Sichwardt and Mr. Scharmach, what defines good user interface design?

Bartos Scharmach: It’s very simple: The design must be human-centred. In other words, instead of people adapting to the technology, the technology adapts to them. Human-centred design means focusing first and foremost on our customers’ wishes. Whatever a system’s purpose, it must always respond to the needs of the people in the vehicle. They tell the car what they want to do and it then proposes a range of options to meet their wishes.

 

How does this apply specifically to the Audi grandsphere concept¹?

Bartos Scharmach: Say the users want to relax, then the car must perform all the necessary operations to make that possible. That’s why one thing we did was to dispense with a static menu for the Audi grandsphere concept’s¹ user interface in favour of a context-sensitive one. So if, for instance, the occupants indicate that they want to relax, the car not only offers them the option of watching a movie or listening to relaxing music but also suggests taking a more soothingly scenic route through the countryside.

¹The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

¹The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

A series of printouts with sketches of the Audi grandsphere’s interior hang on a bulletin board.
From the look and feel to functionality and interactive features, the concept car’s interior is planned in advance on the drawing board.

The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

Our role has evolved from shaping a driver-oriented cockpit into designing a space-oriented interior”

Bartos Scharmach

The Audi grandsphere concept² is designed for first-class travel and the ultimate in comfort that goes with that. How does this translate to the user interface?

Xenia Sichwardt: Smartphone manufacturers are always the main frame of reference for user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design. What sets our UI and UX apart from what you get on a smartphone is that they are not confined to just one surface. Ours unlock new design possibilities in the car’s interior. That’s an incredibly exciting prospect because it means we can merge material choices, architecture and interface design. It’s impossible to replicate that kind of user experience on conventional tech devices.

Bartos Scharmach: The Four Rings conceived the Audi grandsphere² for a future that might see self-driving cars² become a reality. That raises the question: What will customers do when no longer actively driving the car? Whichever way you look at the answer, it changes almost everything for us. As designers, we need to carve out new on-board experiences beyond driving. Our role has evolved from shaping a driver-oriented cockpit into designing a space-oriented interior. The dashboard is no longer the focal point. Instead, everything in the car – the sides, the headliner, the floor – all command equal attention. To put it in a nutshell: When designing a vehicle like the Audi grandsphere that may one day be capable of autonomous driving, we have the opportunity to increasingly rethink and redesign interiors as living spaces where individuals have the freedom to choose their activities.

 

²The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle. The automated driving functions shown are technologies currently under development, are not available for production vehicles and only work within system limits. All possible uses of the technical systems and functions shown represent only a possible concept and are dependent on the respective legal regulations in the relevant country.

²The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle. The automated driving functions shown are technologies currently under development, are not available for production vehicles and only work within system limits. All possible uses of the technical systems and functions shown represent only a possible concept and are dependent on the respective legal regulations in the relevant country.

The Audi grandsphere concept with its doors open.
The doors of the Audi grandsphere¹ open in opposite directions to allow wide access to the vehicle.

¹The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

¹The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

So by using projections instead of traditional displays, you can devote the entire vehicle interior to creating occupant experiences?

Bartos Scharmach: As the Audi grandsphere² no longer has a traditional dashboard, there’s more space in the interior. Rectangular displays are very limiting as they dictate to us as designers where to integrate the interfaces. At the same time, they signal to users that here, and only here, is the interface for interaction between man and machine. By projecting information onto the interior architecture surfaces – which, in this case, are made from wood – we can dispense with those screens. We aim to surprise. When you get into the car, you won’t notice any inactive displays – no dead, black surfaces as we like to call them. Without screens, we can break away from the constraints imposed by displays. In the Audi grandsphere concept², we project onto certain parts of the available surface area and, depending on the situation, can enlarge or reduce those areas. Beyond that, we can project anywhere in the vehicle, which allows us to create a vibrant interior. And when you switch off the projections, there won’t be any blank screens.

Xenia Sichwardt: Frameless design – i.e. interfaces that aren’t contained within set dimensions or tied to a specific position – was very important to us in the Audi grandsphere². Without those restrictions, you are free to display information wherever you like or, more importantly, wherever users want it. And that’s the prime directive for first-class travel in this context – meeting occupants’ needs.

 

How do you incorporate physical materials into a user interface?

Xenia Sichwardt: We started by asking ourselves what it would be like to eliminate all displays from the vehicle and instead work with as many natural materials as possible, such as wood. No two pieces of wood are the same, which is why they inevitably create something unique. As a UI designer, it’s also very exciting exploring this new kind of depiction: What actually happens when we combine projections and natural materials? What kind of interface does that create? Given that everyone is familiar with screens as glass surfaces, switching to projections on wood breaks new ground. Ultimately, it’s worth remembering that humans have an affinity for natural materials because being surrounded by nature puts us at ease.

²The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle. The automated driving functions shown are technologies currently under development, are not available for production vehicles and only work within system limits. All possible uses of the technical systems and functions shown represent only a possible concept and are dependent on the respective legal regulations in the relevant country.

²The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle. The automated driving functions shown are technologies currently under development, are not available for production vehicles and only work within system limits. All possible uses of the technical systems and functions shown represent only a possible concept and are dependent on the respective legal regulations in the relevant country.

Projections playing across the Audi grandsphere concept’s front console.
There isn’t a single display in the Audi grandsphere concept¹. Instead, information is projected onto the interior trim whenever required.

¹The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

¹The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

Frameless design – i.e. interfaces that aren’t contained within set dimensions or tied to a specific position – was very important to us in the Audi grandsphere¹.”

Xenia Sichwardt

 

¹The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

¹The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

There is that very stylish rotary dial in the Audi grandsphere concept’s² doors. What does that do?

Bartos Scharmach: The rotary ring and buttons form an innovative control element with which the driver can navigate various function menus by touch when the car is driven manually. When autonomous mode² is engaged and the car takes over the driving, there is no longer any need for the steering wheel or to remain in its immediate vicinity. Passengers can then recline their seats into a very comfortable position, potentially putting the controls in the doors out of reach. To ensure that occupants are still able to operate the controls, we had to come up with a way for them to interact with this part of the interface remotely. Our solution is the MMI touchless response, which relies on a combination of eye tracking and gesture control. Once the occupant establishes eye contact, they can perform the same hand motion as if they were turning the dial with their fingers. The user is not actually touching anything, but they can see that the rotary dial is nevertheless moving in response to their gesture.

²The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle. The automated driving functions shown are technologies currently under development, are not available for production vehicles and only work within system limits. All possible uses of the technical systems and functions shown represent only a possible concept and are dependent on the respective legal regulations in the relevant country.

²The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle. The automated driving functions shown are technologies currently under development, are not available for production vehicles and only work within system limits. All possible uses of the technical systems and functions shown represent only a possible concept and are dependent on the respective legal regulations in the relevant country.

Bartos Scharmach demonstrates how gestures operate the MMI touchless response.
Even in the reclined position, Bartos Scharmach can easily operate the MMI touchless response using eye contact and gestures.

The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

There’s no mistaking the Four Rings’ distinctive exterior design idiom. What makes Audi user interface design special?

Xenia Sichwardt: We draw inspiration from other cultures. For this project, we borrowed primarily from traditional Japanese painting and its design principle, which states that “the empty space embraces the image”. Turning our approach to design on its head in this way proved very inspiring. Rather than overload the display area with information, we pared things down to the bare necessities and gave it lots of breathing space, which in turn accentuates the meaning of the message. At Audi, we always strive for a simplicity that is, by its very nature, elegant. Or as German industrial designer Dieter Rams once put it, “Less but better.”

The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle. The automated driving functions shown are technologies currently under development, are not available for production vehicles and only work within system limits. All possible uses of the technical systems and functions shown represent only a possible concept and are dependent on the respective legal regulations in the relevant country.

The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle. The automated driving functions shown are technologies currently under development, are not available for production vehicles and only work within system limits. All possible uses of the technical systems and functions shown represent only a possible concept and are dependent on the respective legal regulations in the relevant country.

Vision of the future

Vision of the future

More than a car and more than a one-off, the Audi grandsphere¹ is one of a family of concept vehicles with which Audi is actively shaping premium mobility.

Learn more

¹The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

¹The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle.

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