Twirl your finger, and the volume changes. Stick your thumb out like a hitchhiker and watch your BMW switch to the next song. Throw two fingers at the screen like you’re about to poke someone in the eye, and the volume mutes or unmutes. This is using gesture control in the new BMW X4, and it’ll probably have you feeling like you’ve walked straight out of Harry Potter.
We’ve touched on gesture control a few times before on Jalopnik, but we’ve never actually covered it in massive depth. I actually had no idea it was even a thing until last week, when A Girls Guide to Cars invited me on a three-day drive packed with new cars and female auto writers. And after playing with the feature, I found myself wanting to talk more about it. (Please do note, though, that I didn’t actually drive the X4; I just played with its tech while stationary.)
Gesture control isn’t a new concept. Automakers have been talking about moving beyond touchscreens to implement touchless infotainment controls since the early 2010s, though few have actually followed through with the talk.
You can activate or deactivate gesture control through the settings menu of your touchscreen, and you can set some different gestures for certain controls depending on what feels the most natural to you.
To get this feature to work, BMW added sensors in the roof lining of the car near the rearview mirror that are designed to recognize certain hand gestures.
I had a few problems getting the system to work. For starters, it almost never worked while I was in the driver’s seat, which is where you’d want this to work most accurately — and I wasn’t driving, so I had the ability to focus on my controls. I had much better luck as a passenger, with nearly a perfect success rate.
And this wasn’t just a me problem. Two of my colleagues alternated between the front and passenger seats, and in both cases, they had an easier time using the gesture control as a passenger.
Part of the problem is that it’s hard to figure out where to move your hand and how dramatic of a movement you need to make. You want to be in front of the touchscreen, but not too close — just make sure you’re not too far away. Your hand motions can’t be too exaggerated, but if they’re not exaggerated enough, the cameras don’t recognize them as gesture controls.
There’s a pretty significant lag between your gesture and the multimedia system’s response, too. At least a full second passes before your music changes or you get the mute function to work. I can understand why that is, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying when you realize you’ve suddenly changed three songs or turned the volume up way too loud.
All that being said, though, I still enjoyed the technology, and it made me super giddy when it actually did work. I said it multiple times while I was in the car, but I felt like a wizard, which in turn made me feel like a child. It’s not often an infotainment system gets me feeling that kind of way. And as the responsiveness improves, I can see gesture control becoming hugely popular with the ultra-screened vehicles of our era. Anything to save me the pain of cleaning off the screens every time I use them to get the fingerprint smudges off.
At the end of the day, I do agree with Andrew Collins’ sentiment in his 2019 BMW X7 review: “I have a feeling it’s more of a harbinger of something later that could be cool, rather than a piece of tech that’s going to change our lives.” After several years, the tech here still hasn’t been massively refined, but it’s still a lot of fun — the kind of thing I want to show off to people but that I probably wouldn’t myself.