Want to know how you'll be talking to your car in 2 years? Check out what we learned

DailyTech on Tuesday attended an interesting roundtable discussion hosted by Nuance Communications, Inc. (NUAN) at the Westin hotel in Detroit, Mich.  Co-sponsored by Ford Motor Comp. (F) and Pandora Media Inc. (P), the event included a four speaker panel, which included Pandora Automotive Business Development director Geoff Snyder, Nuance Senior Product Manager Ed Chrumkra, Gracenote (a subsidiary of Japan's Sony Corp. (TYO:6758)) VP Vadim Brenner, and Ford voice control engineer Briggite Richardson.

At the panel and in the demos that followed a number of interesting insights were revealed, which are broken down below:

When will cars talk naturally?

One commenter at the event pertinently pointed out, that even the most advanced voice control systems on the market primarily use stilted commands.  

It was a good point. (The event was, after all, titled "Let's talk about talking to your car".)  Let's face it -- you may talk to your car, but it sure doesn't sound like a typical conversation between humans.

Ms. Richardson with Ford responded that infotainment systems tend to do this to improve accuracy -- making sure the system really catches what you said.  She pointed out that Ford does offer some natural-speech aliases, but that the emphasis is still on a command language.

Nuance's representative Mr. Chrumka added that a big part of natural speech recognition is that it requires either a powerful processor locally or data exchanges with a powerful cloud server.  Nuance and other companies are developing some pretty impressive natural speech solutions on the PC.  

Cars and smartphones currently lack enough high speed throughput to make a solution that's as strong as what you could have on a fast PC.  And these devices also lack the local processing power, he argues, to accomplish moderately capable natural speech, so they must try to leverage the cloud.  And these efforts are just starting, he adds, with commercial (mass-market) solutions a year or two out still -- at least when it comes to strong natural speech.

You'll see an increased amount of natural speech creep into luxury systems like the Cadillac Cue, which launches in 2012, in the meantime.  But even these systems will be a work in progress.

On smartphones versus discrete modems for the car...

Will "connected" cars eventually receive data from built-in modems, like cell phones and tablets, or will they receive data through a tethered connection, like a smartphone's Bluetooth connection?  

Ford smartphone tethering
[Source: Laptop Magazine]

The panelists seemed to primarily feel that tethering to smartphones was the way to go.  Mr. Snyder comments "We definitely leverage the smartphone as the vehicle to get into the vehicle, so to speak. [laughter]"

Will data caps impact in-car tethering?  How will 4G services impact in-car tethering?

These questions provoked a lot of vaguely worded nebulous talking.  The answers told little, but the way they were told did give some hints.  

For the capping, the nervous responses which mostly summed up to "we're going to wait and see where the market goes", seemed to indicate this is something connected car folks don't know quite how to deal with.  Remember, the top connected car players view the smartphone as the penultimate data source, and when your data source hits you with big fines, that's a big problem.

With regard to 4G, the nonresponses seemed to suggest that the answer of added benefits is "not much".  Cellular data coverage, at this point, is arguably far more important to the connected car than a mild increase to speed in select markets.  And even coverage can be mitigated to a degree, as Mr. Snyder pointed out. (Pandora uses local buffering to overcome temporary zones of no-coverage.)

Will Ad-Supported Infotainment (e.g. "Free") Systems Become Reality?

Today even the biggest newspapers like The Wall Street Journal offer much of their content for free, if not from their homepage, through services like Google.  This content could have cost you hundreds of dollars a year, in today's money, to obtain on a daily basis over the course of a year.  Thus it's not infeasible to imagine that advertising could eventually be used to pay for or partially pay for an in-car infotainment system.

Could car buyers one day have an option of picking an infotainment system (like Sync, Entune, etc.) for free that is paid for via ad-revenue?  (Buyers would likely also have the option of ponying up cash for an ad-free version.)

Here's the idea.  You embed advertising at a level beneath the core commands, so it doesn't distract, but over top of the radio and entertainment features.  You can choose between an ad-free version or a discounted version, which occasionally interrupts your media and plays you a locally-targetted ad.

targeted ad
Nuance feels that targeted advertising has the potential to make infotainment systems free or greatly discounted.  Ford's representative voiced skepticism. [Source: On the Way]

Given the data mining prospects, Mr. Chrumka seemed very enthusiastic about this concept.  He said, "We absolutely see that coming to the market."

He adds, "I absolutely think those things are being examined.  [In fact] I know they are."

Ms. Richardson with Ford wasn't so enthusiastic.  She said Ford's current perspective was that advertising could be used to offer "free apps maybe", but that it would be tough to ever "justify the cost of a hardware unit."

No Siri? No Problem?

It's sort of a poorly kept secret that Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) Siri -- the company's talkative iPhone 4S assistant -- is essentially a Nuance application which Apple has slightly modified and rebranded. 

One Nuance engineer during the Q&A even outright said that Nuance's property was at the heart of Siri.  Others were more politically correct and quoted the official party line -- that Apple licenses technology from Nuance for unspecified purposes.

So the real question is -- "What do iPhone 4 and 3GS owners do now that Apple has yanked Siri from the App Store, making it an iPhone 4S exclusive?"  

A competing (or complimentary) solution is Dragon Dictation and Dragon Go (the new version of the older Dragon Search app).  Both apps are in their second generation on the iOS platform and have matured greatly in capabilities.  

Nuance's first mobile app solution, Dictation allows you to dictate messages, which are interpreted via cloud processing and neatly displayed.  You can then copy the blurb, send it as an SMS, send it as an email, or more.  

Dragon Go is much more Siri-like.  It allows you to speak a natural language query or command (e.g. "What's the Lakers score?") and the app will parse the question/command and use it populate searches or forms in a host of partner websites.  For example sports questions would take you to various sports sites, asking for a concert ticket would tak you StubHub, asking for a dinner reservation would take you to OpenTable, etc.

Dragon Go, in particular, is very cool.  So cool in fact, that not having Siri suddenly doesn't seem like much of a problem.

Dragon Dictation

The only baffling thing?  The slick Dragon Go is only available for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.  Why no support for Android, by far the world's most used platform?  

Nuance representatives responses seemed to indicate a general cluelessness as to why support hadn't yet been added.  About the only thing we can think of is that Apple paid Nuance an undisclosed sum to stay off Android for a specified time.  The alternative -- that Nuance can't program a decent Android app like the rest of the big players just seems too farfetched.

Regardless, the prospect of more downloads, and thus more ad-revenue from the company's website partners, is dangling in front of Nuance's face and will be hard to resist in the long run.  Indeed Nuance's representatives promise that Dragon Go is being ported to Android as stand alone apps and will launch sometime in the future (though they refused to say exactly when).

Dragon Dictation is already available packaged within the framework of some Android devices, but Dragon Go is not available yet on any Android device for whatever reason (possibly exclusivity).

Texting and driving...

Nuance has a plan to make the much loathed texting finally safe for the car.  It's leveraging an in-car display, a connection to the cloud (e.g. a smartphone), and a control knob to allow for full dictation of outgoing messages, while on the go.

Texting while driving
This is not Nuance's texting and driving solution. [Source: Alabama Injury Attorneys]

To start, you merely click the knob in.  While in the demo this knob was discrete, we could easily imagine the radio knob doubling as this control.

Once the software started listening, it gave you a cue to speak your phrase.  It then displayed what it thought it heard, as processed in and returned from the cloud.  

To edit the message, you used the knob to scroll between words.  With a click you selected a word, and yet again received an audio cue giving you the signal to speak the correct word or phrase to replace the selected word with.  

Sending the finished message was as simple as a voice command.  Nuance didn't explicitly say that you would be able to dictate, edit, and send messages on the go in the eventual commercial form, but that seemed to be the implied message here.

Clearly the technology is almost here.  Expect to see this technology pop up on Ford's Sync platform sometime around 2013, if not 2012.  The competition will likely be just a bit behind, deploying solutions around 2014.

"It's okay. The scenarios aren't that clear. But it's good looking. [Steve Jobs] does good design, and [the iPad] is absolutely a good example of that." -- Bill Gates on the Apple iPad

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