Beyond Bluetooth

Staying Connected in a Hands-Free World


  • Starship Enterprise

    Starship Enterprise

    The fictional Starship Enterprise had plenty of sci-fi technology that's a reality today — no word on Shatner's grasp of reality. | March 18, 2010

7 Photos

Congratulations, hackers, gamers and geeks, your Star Trek-fueled vision of the future is finally coming true. The fictional technology that ran the Starship Enterprise's talking computer is a modern reality. Generally called "text-to-speech," this technology does exactly what its name suggests: It converts text or data into a voice or a voice into text or data. That data can then be read by a computer. In short, it allows you to talk to your car.

Turns out, the talking computer hasn't really revolutionized space travel or even made it into our homes but it has made it into the family car. Of course, it's no trick to include voice-recognition technology in a $70,000 Mercedes-Benz, but this stuff is showing up in several low-priced cars, too. Voice recognition (or VR) is available in affordable cars like the Ford Focus, the new Honda Accord, the new Chevy Malibu and even the Chrysler Sebring.

Engage!

OnStar, Sync, UConnect and TeleAid are just a few brand names that include sophisticated telematics features like the ability to speak to your car. If you think it's Japanese or European automakers that are revolutionizing this type of tech, you're wrong. American automakers have been the pioneers in this area, as their systems are generally the most comprehensive and easy to use. Twenty years ago, we assumed automakers like Mercedes-Benz, Saab or Volvo would be the first to offer such features as automatic emergency response, but it's General Motors that's leading that charge thanks to OnStar. Mercedes-Benz's TeleAid came along a few years later.

OnStar is the perfect example of Star Trek fantasy turning into reality. The service has been around since 1996 and is so simple, anyone who's completed the fourth grade can use it. One of OnStar's most notable features is called Personal Calling. This feature allows you to make and receive phone calls with just the push of a button.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, OnStar doesn't use Bluetooth, a short-range wireless technology protocol becoming very commonplace in cell phones and other portable devices. On one hand, this is good because you don't need a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. In fact, you don't need a cell phone at all — it's an independent system. But OnStar isn't so good if, like millions of Americans, you already have a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone and want to use its minutes and phone number while talking hands-free in your car. OnStar vehicles have their own separate phone number, which isn't ideal. Verizon customers can incorporate the two, however.

A Must-Have Feature

Current in-car voice-recognition systems offer no true intuitive interaction as depicted onboard the Enterprise, but the VR system in the new Honda Accord comes closest. It's not as simple as OnStar, and you can't ask it to replicate a cup of Earl Grey (hot, naturally). But when the Accord is fitted with the factory navigation system, you can ask it to take you to a street address. Whereas OnStar users are likely to be talking to a real person (an OnStar operator), Honda's voice-controlled navigation is all talking car. The Honda system is very comprehensive and can understand whole phrases like "Find nearest gas station" and "Temperature up/down." It can also handle whole street names and numbers so you don't have to go letter by letter.

Chrysler's UConnect system is also a hands-free calling feature, but unlike OnStar it's a Bluetooth connection for your phone. Included is a simple interface that uses voice-recognition technology to save and store phone numbers. It's easy to use and very intuitive, and we've found it to be better than the Bluetooth interface systems used in Nissan and Toyota's cars. Five years ago, UConnect was revolutionary; today it's simply expected. Even the budget-priced PT Cruiser offers Bluetooth as an option. That one feature alone could be a reason to buy a car when shopping, as many states and counties are enacting laws that ban the use of handheld phones while driving. California's law, for instance, goes into effect in 2008.

But all these systems have one major flaw: Each requires that you verbally build a phone book by speaking each person's name and phone number out loud, then saving it. That's a hassle considering your phone's address book likely already has these names and numbers stored.

Ford's in Sync

Enter Ford's Sync system, an in-car hands-free interface codeveloped by Ford and Microsoft. Sync can wirelessly connect to your Bluetooth phone. The real genius of the system is that it gets into your phone book and automatically imports it. Text-to-speech capability means making phone calls is as easy as pushing a button, speaking a command like "Call," then saying the name of the person you wish to call. You can even send and receive simple text messages.

That's a worthwhile feature in itself, but Sync takes it one step further by allowing voice-controlled access to your Zune, iPod or other portable music player. Portable music players connect via a USB port, so accessing your music is as easy as saying "U-S-B" then "Play Artist" followed by the name of the band or performer you want to hear. You can access tracks by song title, album name or genre as well. If you're not sure what you want to hear but like the song that's currently playing, you can say "play similar music" and the system will find similar music based on genre, artist, rhythm and beats per minute. That's pretty amazing stuff, especially considering we're talking about Ford vehicles priced between $15,000 and $25,000. Sync is available on a limited number of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles currently and will be expanding even further in the future.

Future Possibilities

At this point, Sync represents the state of the art in terms of in-car communication. But improvements are clearly on the way. Mark Spain, director of Microsoft's automotive unit, says Sync is already more capable than any current music player on the market. Given that, it's not hard to imagine simple improvements.

Let's say a future version keeps track of how many times you play each song. (Your Zune or iPod already does this.) Imagine a car with a broadband connection. Now, your car could easily ask you if you want to update your music library or listen to certain radio programs it thinks you might like, automatically billing you for each song purchased. Suddenly, a car that tailors entertainment choices based on personal habits seems less like science fiction and more like something GM would work into a dance number in a Super Bowl ad.

In fact, Hughes Telematics already has such a system ready to go, plus it will offer all the services OnStar currently offers. It may even allow you to conduct a state-required smog check from your own driveway and possibly download software fixes to your car's computer. Erik Goldman, President of Hughes Telematics says their service will "evolve more aggressively" than OnStar and will be offered in Mercedes Benz vehicles beginning in 2009. Goldman also said the company will have 20 million cars on the road with this system by the year 2015.

Today's in-car tech may have started with the gloriously low-budget Star Trek TV show, but seemingly absurd ideas like a talking computer are commonplace today. The real trick is avoiding the bits of tech that are simply a waste of time and money. Technology should make your life easier, not more complicated. Features like OnStar and Sync do just that.

Related articles:

Telematics Digital Transition Hits Speed Bump

Telematics: Can Great Tech Find an Encore?

What the Heck Is Bluetooth and Why Should I Care?

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