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Jun 9, 2009

BMW Voice Control Simplifies Navigation

Imagine being able to tell your car where you want to go in a few words, or pick out your music without taking your eyes off the road. That's what BMW promises this fall with its new voice control system. BMW (and the rest of the car world) is playing catch-up with Ford's Sync system. It's possible BMW has passed Ford on the navigation side; some of the new BMW audio input controls still seem stunted and cumbersome, at least based on what BMW is disclosing now. It's available on 2009 BMWs worldwide, the company says.

BMW calls it a "truly innovative, cutting-edge technology for voice control" because a single voice command lets you give your car the entire address. In BMW's example, after you've started the voice command by pressing a button on the steering wheel and then after you've summoned up the navigation module, you say something as simple as, "Berlin, Willy-Brandt-Strasse 1", and you go straight to the Federal Chancellery. Assuming you're not in Boston at the time.

That's on top of BMW's ability to send map information from Google Maps to your car. Mercedes- Benz also has a send-to-car feature. It's a nice way to preload a bunch of vacation destinations and can also be helpful if your rich but technically inept brother-in-law can't make navigation work in his new 7 Series; you can do it for him.

BMW Bypasses the Navigation Song-and-Dance

Most cars drive you crazy with a bunch of questions about the destination you want or the music you want to hear. Usually it's mind-numbingly slow and makes you fall back to the touchpad and control wheel when you have to do this:

Car: "[Ding] Please say a command." You: "Navigation" Car: "Please say a state." You: "Colorado." Car: "Please say a city." You: "Denver." Car: "Please say a street." You: "Colfax Avenue" And so forth. Why does this happen? There are two problems. First, the car can only digest so much information at a time, and often the twenty-questions routine is the car's way of stalling for time as it loads the navigation module, then the Colorado city list, then the Denver street list, and so forth. The second is that most cars aren't multi-modal, a fancy way of saying the underpowered, supplied by the lowest bidder module, doesn't have the ability to think about music, navigation, and climate control all at one time, so you have to jump among modules.

Ford Sync in its initial version suffered this problem; Ford says it's getting better with new models.

Thirty Seconds to Summon Duffy?

BMW says the music input feature is way cool, too, and a blessing to the easily distracted driver. BMW says the feature works first with music files on the car's hard disk drive, followed by the ability to function with iPods and other music players come spring 2010. It will also work side-by-side with the iDrive controller; now, if you interrupt a voice command by using the controller, voice entry ends.

Here's an example BMW offers up. You decide how cool this really is:

You: [Press voice button on wheel.] BMW: [Ding] You: "Music search." BMW voice control: "Music search. Please name a menu item or say start playback." You: "Select artist." BMW: "Please say an artist." You: "Duffy." BMW: "Duffy. Please name a menu item or say 'start playback.'" You: "Select a title." BMW: "Please say a title." You: "Mercy." BMW: "Mercy. [Ding. Duffy sings.]"
This little back and forth in BMW's demo ran almost 30 seconds, a pretty long chunk of time even for a must-listen, sexually charged song that runs three minutes, 40 seconds. BMW can only hope that the new voice control does for buyers what Duffy proclaims:

I don't know what you do.
But you do it well.
I'm under your spell.

The other possibility is that it's still slow and, in Duffy's words, "You got me begging for mercy." What drivers want is a microprocessor fast enough and track-and-title storage big enough that you can press the button and say, "Play Duffy - Mercy." And the car would figure out that "play" has to do with the entertainment system while "take me to" or "destination ... " would be the cue that you want to interface with navigation. It then figures out if Duffy is an artist or track name. You figured it out; why can't the car?

In such a system, there might be conflict, such as the artist Duffy and a track from another artist called The Ballad of the Duffy Clan. Through disambiguation, the car could ask what you want, or it could notice Duffy the artist has been played a bunch of times in the last month, but not the Ballad of Duffy.

Sounds as if BMW is moving forwarding and cementing its reputation as the highest of the high-tech automakers. Whether fullest ease-of-use takes a back seat remains to be seen. Recall that BMW engineers spent seven years high-fiving each other for inventing iDrive in 2001-2002 and only belatedly recognized (with 2009 models) that it was a bit harder to use than they thought. iDrive is now the easiest cockpit controller to use (along with the Lexus Remote Touch), but it took them a while.

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