Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Car of future could do it all

Butler, lip-reader, lifesaver

By Jim Fitzgerald
The Associated Press

HAWTHORNE, N.Y. - A driver of the future - the near future, IBM says - will be able to dictate and send e-mails, get spoken directions to a restaurant, even play a game of "Name That Tune" with his onboard computer.

If the children in the back seat are being too noisy and the computer can't hear him well enough, it'll just read his lips.

And if he's getting drowsy, approaching a sharp curve or driving too fast in the rain, the car might cut off his interactive privileges so he can pay more attention to his driving.

"We're talking about a butler in the dashboard who would look after you, take care of your every need," said Mahesh Viswanathan, an IBM researcher.

Viswanathan was part of the company's presentation last week on various auto-related computer developments it is offering carmakers.

IBM spokeswoman Barbara Churchill predicted that some of the technology would show up in one company's cars - she wouldn't say which equipment or which manufacturer - within 18 months.

In a demonstration at a make-believe dashboard, Viswanathan greeted the computer ("Good morning, Sally"), told it he was catching a flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport and received a map and spoken directions, estimated travel time, the state of the traffic ahead, the weather and directions to an Italian restaurant en route.

The computer interrupted its routine - including the "Name That Tune" game - to tell him the flight was delayed, a bridge had gotten backed up and a colleague had sent a voice mail, which it then read.

IBM acknowledged that not all such information is actually available so quickly - there's no real-time source for traffic conditions, for example - but said it is coming.

Microsoft Corp. last year launched its next-generation software for auto dashboards, which aims to let people get the most out of their cell phones and check e-mail while on the road. The software giant says eight auto manufacturers and their suppliers are already working on navigation, safety and entertainment systems that will mesh with the new platform, Windows Automotive 4.2.

Viswanathan said the idea is to have everything a driver needs made available "as if you were talking to another person in the car who can do all these things for you."

The computer would mesh "local" duties, like setting the air conditioning at 72 degrees when requested, with "network" research, like getting the latest quotes on your stock portfolio.

The key is speech recognition - getting the computer to understand the driver's instructions without errors. Such technology has advanced greatly in recent years, and in quiet surroundings most humans can be understood almost perfectly by a computer.

But with open windows, passing trucks or bumpy roads, it's not always quiet in a car, so IBM has added audiovisual speech recognition, in which a tiny camera, mounted on the sun visor or above the rearview mirror, can record a speaker's lip movements and enhance the computer's understanding.

The camera may also detect when a driver is drowsy, his head nodding or eyes closing, and can trigger a spoken alert warning the driver and suggesting a rest - or at least loud music.

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