Will voice control become the norm for in-car tech?

12th Oct 2009 | 14:05

Will voice control become the norm for in-car tech?

We look at Fiat's Blue&Me system, based on Microsoft Auto

How Microsoft is getting in your car

Microsoft's new system means you can make calls and control music as you drive – simply by speaking. So how does it work? Ever thought what it would be like if there was a computer in your car – a proper PC that you could interact with? Well now there can be.

Blue&Me is a partnership between Microsoft Auto and Magneti Marelli – part of Fiat that develops high technology systems for in-car use. Controlled by your voice, Blue&Me enables you to make calls on your phone, listen to incoming text messages, check your phonebook and listen to music.

The system can even interpret abbreviations and smilies in your texts as it reads them out to you. This part of the system works in tandem with your mobile phone, which is synchronised with the system via the Bluetooth short-range wireless technology found in most modern handsets.

The Fiat cars with Blue&Me also have a USB port enabling you to connect up personal media players and other devices, while the system can be accessed using extra buttons on the steering wheel including a Windows-style Start button – can then be used to control the devices aside from the voice commands.

Fiat blue and me

Computing is moving towards more natural user interfaces, as we're currently seeing with Windows 7 and its support for voice and touch technologies.

Manufacturers are under pressure to reduce driver distractions, while customers are increasingly looking for ways to use their mobiles legally on the move. Safety is at the heart of Blue&Me, since drivers don't have to move their hands from the wheel to use it.

A recent study on in-car distraction by the Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany, showed that natural language speech recognition lowers distraction. The study worked by comparing the entering of an address part-by-part into a sat-nav by speech recognition with entering it with a single confirmation from an address book. The latter dramatically reduced the slowing of reaction time.

Fiat blue and me

Magneti Marelli has designed the system to be compatible with as many mobile phones and media players as possible. Running on the Microsoft Windows Embedded CE 6.0 operating system, Blue&Me is based on the Microsoft Auto software platform designed for in-vehicle use.

Formed over 10 years ago, Microsoft's Automotive Unit has released six major versions of its Auto platform and over 80 different car models are now available containing variations of the platform, from manufacturers such as Honda, BMW, Subaru, Toyota and Volvo.

Blue&Me is available on Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Lancia cars and Fiat's light commercial vehicles in Europe and South America. These include the Fiat 500, Grande Punto, Linea and Bravo as well as the Alfa Romeo 159, Brera, MiTo and Spider.

It's available as a standard feature in all top-end Fiat 500 versions and is also offered as an option in the entry-level 500 models. The new model Fiat 500 that we've photographed for this feature is produced in Tychy, Poland, alongside the new second-generation Ford Ka.

Sync the other system

The other main application of Microsoft Auto systems is Ford Sync. Just as Fiat's system is only available is certain areas, SYNC is only currently available in North America. Offered on some Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models, it's a very similar system to Blue&Me.

Ford shipped the millionth Sync-equipped vehicle in May – a 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid which was delivered to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Ford has achieved huge success with the Sync system – more than 80 per cent of the vehicles Ford sells in North America are equipped with the system. The platform has also been upgraded, with new applications Vehicle Health Report and 911 Assist added.

Existing owners can download the updates. Another new Sync application: Traffic, Directions and Information, will be available for download later this summer. The system is also built to be modular – meaning car makers and other device manufacturers can easily add their own elements to it.

Consequently, the system can keep pace with new technology and be easily adapted to different types of car as well as new phones and devices. Microsoft says it believes the 'infotainment' potential for the system is huge, and could change the way people communicate and listen as they drive.

But how does Blue&Me recognise your voice? Like many in-car handsfree systems – or those call centre speech recognition systems you get on the phone – Blue&Me uses universal voice recognition technology from Nuance, so the system doesn't need time to learn individual voices.

Fiat blue and me

Nuance makes the popular Dragon voice recognition software for Windows, but also powers the voice recognition inside many sat-nav devices from the likes of Tom Tom and Medion. Its speech recognition systems currently support 23 languages, while the text-to-speech engine that reads your text messages to you supports an impressive 34 languages.

Using Blue&Me in the car

Pairing your phone with the system

So how does Blue&Me work in the car? Well, once you've paired your Bluetooth mobile with the system, which you only need to do the first time you set it up, you then need to download your phonebook. In the Fiat 500, the menu options for Blue&Me are displayed on main multifunction instrument panel between the clock and the mileometer, while the USB port is situated near the handbrake between the front seats.

Fiat blue and me

On the left of the steering wheel you get a Windows key and an Escape/Mute key, as well as an OK and phone key on the right. There are also volume keys on plus scroll up and scroll down keys for moving between contacts in your phone book or tracks on your music player.

You only need to store your phonebook once, but don't worry about numbers changing – any changes are automatically updated whenever the system detects the mobile phone. The first time you connect your phone you'll also have to pair it with the system, so you'll need to enter a PIN into your phone as instructed by the car.

Fiat blue and me

The system supports five different phones at any one time, so it can handily be used by several people, should it be a work pool car, or a family vehicle. Should the system detect two synchronised mobiles in the car at the same time, it will simply pair with the last phone used. When you wish to make a call, you just say the name of the person you wish to call.

You can also call other numbers by dictating to the system. You can also use the controls on the steering wheel, or your voice, to scroll through the phone book on the instrument panel. When in a call, the system can be muted if you wish, or you can be notified of any call waiting for you.

When you receive a new text, the sender's name and number is displayed on the panel in front of you. You can then choose to have it read out with you, as well as review old texts or even call back the person who texted you.

Listening to music

When you want to listen to music, simply plug in a media player into the USB port. The Blue&Me system supports MP3, WMA and WAV format music, while you can connect almost anything to it, whether it's a simple USB drive with some songs on, or an iPod with your entire music library.

Fiat blue and me

In common with other digital audio systems you can plug an iPod into, the system can't play protected content, such as songs downloaded from the iTunes Store. When you connect the device to the USB port, you'll see 'MEDIA PLAYER' appear on the radio display in the front of the car. If you have a lot of tracks, Blue&Me will take a few minutes to build up and catalogue the music library.

You can then use the voice or button commands to browse and select the track you want to play – if applicable, you can browse through the various folders and files using the instrument panel display. Simply speak information such as the album, artist, and song title to listen to the relevant songs. Blue&Me can also recognise the .m3u format for listening to playlisted tracks.

So where will Blue&Me and Microsoft Auto take us in the future? The possibilities are many and extend naturally into portable navigation to begin with. Blue&Me MAP, a multi-functional portable navigator, was demonstrated in the Fiat 500 at the Bologna Motor Show 2007. Ford has announced that SYNC will have traffic, turn-by-turn directions and other information services such as weather and sports in 2010 year models. Fiat says that it is planning to offer such add-on services in "the near future."

Blue&Me will also "offer a simple navigation system and access to a set of services such as a personal assistant to look for addresses, weather and traffic information, satellite positioning of the vehicle in the event of it being stolen, an SOS service, and lots of others currently being developed." So watch this space.

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