Customer Spotlight8 min read

Prototyping the Future of Mobility With ProtoPie

How BMW turned to ProtoPie for its automotive prototyping solution.

Rebeca Caritas
Rebeca Caritas, Customer Success ManagerDecember 6, 2023

In new BMWs, the driver drives and enjoys semi-automated driving, the co-driver a full-back massage and relaxation, while the back-seat passengers entertain themselves by watching a movie on the BMW Theatre Screen.

BMW car interior design.

This shows that BMW cars are far more than beautiful driving pleasure machines that can reach high speeds. They can be seen as experience capsules, designed to provide a unique, emotional, and personalized experience to each passenger. In these cars, systems for driving, UI/UX, AI, and various on and off-board services heavily intertwine and intersect.

It's clear to see that developing prototypes for such powerful automotive experiences presents significant challenges, particularly in the context of today's ever-evolving user needs and technological advancement.

prototype cars bmw
BMW uses advanced technology to improve user experience.

The traditional bread-and-butter prototyping tools with static screens and slow turnaround times aren't enough anymore. Designers and stakeholders want to move new products to market faster than ever. Moreover, prototyping automotive experiences requires a seamless synergy between software and external hardware.

To learn more, we spoke to Teo Babic, a lead UI/UX prototyping specialist and designer based in the BMW R&D headquarter in Munich, along with Felix, a senior UX designer and creative technologist based in the BMW R&D center in Shanghai.

Benefits of rapid high-fidelity prototyping

A prototype is worth more than a thousand meetings because it allows the product to speak for itself. Think about it. The user, team-member or decision-taker, can experience and reflect on the product before it’s even a product.

Let’s delve deeper. A prototype enables you to:

  • Save time
  • Open a creative discussion with your team
  • Iterate faster
  • Impress shareholders
  • Conduct more effective user research
prototyping inside the design flow
Prototyping inside the design flow.
rapid prototyping with ProtoPie
Rapid prototyping with ProtoPie.

This adds legitimacy and authority to the decision-making process. Teo summed it up nicely. Designers can “really experience, discuss, and test” a prototype because it looks and feels like the real thing.

The result? Such prototyping hardwired overtime a fail-fast mentality early on into the DNA of the process, allowing for a highly iterative product cycle that enables designers to test their ideas and learn from their mistakes more efficiently.

Paradigm shift: from “prototyping” to “protothinking”

As Teo explained, in order to make prototyping accessible to all visionary and creative UI/UX designers, a shift in perspective around the prototyping process is required.

Rather than viewing prototyping as "just a step" in the design-thinking process that anyone can do, it should be viewed as "protothinking". This means that the same person who has the idea or vision should use prototyping tools to reflect on their idea, delve deeper into the idea mentally, and the finished prototype (.pie file) should be seen as a coincidental and highly valuable side-effect or outcome of this "protothinking". It's not about building the prototype, it's about thinking and learning while doing it.

BMW’s journey to ProtoPie

High-fidelity prototyping converts ideas into real-world experiences.

This has been at the heart of what Felix has been doing since he started as a UX designer with BMW. The BMW team had tried several tools over the years—the problem was that none of them ticked all the boxes. They wanted a rapid prototyping tool to create high-fidelity prototypes.

The tools they tested came up short. The drab interactivity left them wanting, with most only showing basic screen-to-screen transitions.

prototyping tools comparison by BMW
Comparing prototyping tools.

Automotive experiences rely on many input signals sent out from or to the car, like speed or the pressing of physical buttons on the steering wheel, and control for ambient lights. As a result, they needed a prototyping tool that could seamlessly integrate with external hardware and real-world data from their APIs.

In the past, game engines like Unity and Unreal were the way to go. However, as Felix said, those threw up their own problems. “Navigating these complex tools without a computer science background can be challenging.”

By the early summer of 2019, the BMW’s Technology Office in South Korea reached out to Teo and Felix and told them about a very promising startup that offered the amazing rapid-prototyping solution for UI/UX.

Things moved fast. “Not even two days later, we hooked up a steering wheel to a simple Pie," Felix said.

protopie automotive features testing
Testing ProtoPie's features for automotive.

Later BMW and ProtoPie decided to do an intensive collaboration within the setup of the BMW Startup Garage. The BMW Startup Garage is a unit of the BMW Group that partners with startups, providing them an opportunity to run pilot projects with BMW, thereby fostering innovation and potentially beneficial solutions for both parties.

Unleashing a new era of creativity at BMW with ProtoPie

With ProtoPie BMW put the power to create complex prototypes into the hands of any designers — not only software devs. After all, the tool was entirely code-free.

Better still, they found a great solution for hardware-connected prototyping, which is very hard to accomplish without serious coding efforts. Through ProtoPie Connect, “any designer could seamlessly connect their high-fidelity prototypes to external hardware, just with a few clicks,” said Teo.

ProtoPie created a “super easy” way to make automotive prototypes talk with APIs and driving simulators, or read signals from hardware like steering wheels, seats and lights.

In the pre-ProtoPie days, it would take a comparatively long time to visualize the signals sent from the car—after all, they were subject to the complex fully-coded algorithms. ProtoPie meant they could bring complex interactions to life within minutes.

It’s no wonder why ProtoPie is the de facto standard rapid prototyping tool for BMW’s designers. “Our designers can test, iterate and present their ideas within just a few clicks right next to their desk in a vehicle environment”, Teo explained.

Why ProtoPie provides the perfect balance between tech and design

The BMW team finds ProtoPie also particularly useful when conducting usability studies with actual customers.

stationary mockups bmw
Stationary office mockups.

Experience is everything. BMW also uses ProtoPie Player to stream the UI into their complex simulations of hyper-realistic real-world experiences. Here, real world users could experience the look and feel of the future products without ever touching the fully-engineered final product.

bmw tech and design
Exploring and testing future products.
virtual mockups

Teo was heavily impressed by the end result of the collaboration project in the BMW Startup Garage:“ One year ago we first laid our hands on ProtoPie, today we have for example a ProtoPie enabled BMW X5 car rolling on the streets of Shanghai.”

This important milestone was testament to ProtoPie’s awesome power. BMW could test concepts in real-life traffic situations while receiving almost all signals available in the car. This meant they could iterate faster, fail better, ramp up usability testing, and iterate again. Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat.

Something surprised them—this was all achieved on remarkably less resources be it in engineering or financial. Crucially, “With off the shelf hardware, iIt doesn’t take much effort to enable a car to talk to a prototype,” as Teo said.

prototypes used in real cars bmw
Testing prototypes made with ProtoPie in real cars.

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