Mini Vision Urbanaut: From Designing a Car to Designing a Space

A few weeks ago, Sam Livingstone and I discussed the design of future mobility products on the FORMCAST podcast. One of the things that Sam referred to was the mobile space; a place where people could meet and, through low-speed movement, travel to their destination. That space needn’t move, however.

The car as a space is not a novel idea. Designers have been thinking about cars as the 3rd Space for a while now, after the home (1st) and office (2nd). It’s the subject of many new vehicle concepts, from the Chrysler Portal to Chris Bangle’s REDS project, both of which were shown several years ago.

During the pandemic, many bubbling trends were intensified. With people forced to work from their homes and conducting meetings digitally rather than in person, the mobile (or immobile, as the case may be) space is even more appropriate. And that’s when the Mini Vision Urbanaut was conceived.

The Vision (aka concept in BMW-speak) Urbanaut is a minimalistic mono-volume punctuated by smart lighting elements hidden within the bodywork and the wheels themselves. The purity of the concept is accentuated by simple forms and, while the Urbanaut’s van-like typology is significantly taller than other Minis, the car is still a fairly compact 4.46m long.  

The Mini Vision Urbanaut responds to the user’s needs outside of the home, and the reconfigurable interior is without question the most appealing aspect of the concept. Fitted with boutique-style furniture, the Urbanaut’s IP can be transformed into a front lounge bed while the driver and passenger seats rotate into the main cabin area. It takes the idea of the conventional camper and minimizes its footprint while adding a host of new technology.

Emphasizing comfort through different moods, which the brand calls ‘Mini Moments’, the Vision Urbanaut provides a range of possible usage scenarios for its users. The ‘Chill’, ‘Vibe’ and ‘Wanderlust’ moments are enabled by a tactile ‘Mini Token’ – a digital connection device that is placed into the table at the rear. The Token can be programmed to provide any number of personalized experiences to adjust the fragrance, ambient lighting, music, etc. within the cabin.

The entire roof is glazed, save for a small loop over the rear ‘Cozy Corner’ area which is used as a display screen over the occupants. In the Chill moment, the backlit loop displays a green forest canopy to calm the occupants while ambient music and atmospheric sounds from nature are piped into the environment. The rear bench seat can also be reconfigured into various seating and lying positions.

“The Chill moment invites you to catch a breath and pause in the here and now,” says Oliver Heilmer, Mini’s Head of Design. “The car becomes a kind of retreat, a haven where you can relax or work with full concentration.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum – but still stationary – the Vibe moment is a shared, interactive experience for multiple people, This mode opens the side door and folds up the windscreen, blurring the boundaries between the interior and exterior. Amid colorways of magenta and black with turquoise highlights, the Vibe moment transforms the Vision Urbanaut into a club-like environment, with a media control center and an animation of graphic equalizers projected onto surfaces of the front, rear, wheels and aforementioned loop.

It’s safe to say we’ve all experienced a technology overload in recent months. Virtual meetings and screens take up much of our day. Mini responded to this undesirable phenomenon with a digital detox environment. The only visible screen – round, in typical Mini fashion – is at the center of the cabin. All of the buttons, driver assistance displays, and other technological elements are hidden away behind sustainable textile materials.

The dominant material in the interior is knitted textile, which combines cosiness and quality with softness and comfort. The use of cork on the steering wheel and sections of the floor was chosen because of its natural feel while the use of recycled materials also enhances the concept’s sustainability factor.

The last pre-defined Mini moment is called Wanderlust, which is apropos given the fact that this is the only mobile environment. In this mode, users can drive or be driven, offering a tourism-style experience. The visuals of the user interface, inspired by tourism posters of the 1950s and 60s, display an animation of the route and other journey information – such as visitor attractions and arrival time – while the loop above the rear area visualises the feeling of movement with a simulated blur of passing scenery in a mix of orange and turquoise.

Users tap on the Mini logo to bring out the steering wheel and pedals when they want to drive. A minimalist parallax display in the IP — the only driving-related display — provides route instructions or hazard alerts. In automated driving mode, the steering wheel and pedals retract and the driving display disappears. On the exterior of the car, the light graphics in the LED matrix surfaces at the front and rear of the vehicle signal whether the user is piloting the vehicle or if the automated mode has been engaged.  

The Vision Urbanaut is an interesting vehicle concept showcasing how Mini envisions the future of mobility, and it’s an especially appealing scenario for those of us that have been working from their living rooms for the better part of this year. I’d personally welcome any of the non-mobile moment scenarios, though it might still be a while until we can use the Vibe moment with our friends.

In many ways, however, the Urbanaut is just an evolution of the MPV, like a VW Combi of the ‘60s brought up to date with technology and greener materials. There are subtle differences — the folding IP is a nice touch — but it’s generally the same shape/idea as the Renault Espace and original Chrysler minivans with a reconfigurable interior.

Below is a video from the Mini design team showing how the concept was created and the thinking behind it. Unless you understand German, you’ll need to do a bit of reading.


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