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    DEARBORN, Mich. -- Don't expect to converse with your car quite like David Hasselhoff and KITT did in the '80s TV classic "Knight Rider," but voice recognition is one of the...

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    DEARBORN, Mich. -- Don't expect to converse with your car quite like David Hasselhoff and KITT did in the '80s TV classic "Knight Rider," but voice recognition is one of the big looming trends in the automobile industry.

    For years already, some drivers who seek out the latest and greatest in technology have been talking to their cars when they want to listen to music, turn up the air conditioner or get directions.

    No need to look away from the road or blindly reach for a knob or button, just speak a command aloud and the car obeys

    Voice recognition and other high-tech features are expected to become far more mainstream in the months and years ahead, as automakers race to outdo each other and tap into consumer demand for an app-inspired, always-connected lifestyle on the road.

    CD players have been replaced by hard drives that can store tens of thousands of MP3s, or drivers can connect a smartphone and use its data connection to stream music via the Internet. Dedicated GPS navigation systems are being phased out in favour of multi-function digital panels that look like a smartphone or tablet homescreen, populated with a long list of apps.

    "Automakers are trying to replicate that smartphone/touchscreen experience that people are used to and like," says industry analyst and consultant Doug Newcomb.

    "Car buyers really want this, that's why automakers are doing it, technology really helps them sell cars."

    Perhaps there was no clearer sign that companies are serious about competing to develop the coolest, most advanced in-car technology than an Apple announcement in June. The tech giant revealed it's working with nine automakers to integrate its popular voice-recognition tool Siri into vehicles.

    Meanwhile, BMW and Honda are among the car manufacturers that are releasing new in-car technology in Canada this fall.

    And at the forefront of the trend has been Ford, one of the more aggressive companies in delivering in-car voice technology to the mass market with its Sync product, which has already been around for about five years.

    With Sync, drivers can press a button on the steering wheel and voice their desire to place a phone call, control the stereo, make their vehicle warmer or cooler, or get directions. Ford claims the system recognizes 10,000 different commands -- although there's no master list available to consumers so that's difficult to verify.

    "Our world is changing," Bill Ford, Ford's chairman, said at a recent press event in Dearborn, Mich.

    "We've got over four million vehicles with Sync on the road today and what's cool is we have an open platform, so developers are developing apps for Sync. And we love that, that's why we did it."

    Among those apps available for Sync in the U.S. are the audio streaming services Pandora, MOG and Slacker Radio, a program to listen to tweets posted to Twitter, and another that gives allergy sufferers an update on pollen levels in the local area.

    Critics, however, have noted that Sync's ability to understand strings of spoken words is nowhere near as robust as Siri's. Drivers must learn how to speak to the Sync system, which often doesn't respond to natural speech and instead needs to hear a sequence of spoken commands to complete a task. If your wording is a little off, you'll be prompted to try again. And don't even think of asking jokey questions like you can with Siri.

    "It's getting better but it's still not there, it's still all over the map," says Newcomb.

    "They're still in that learning phase, a growing pains phase."

    The market leader in voice technology is Nuance Communications, which powers Ford's Sync. Gary Clayton, chief creative officer for Nuance, says the technology is constantly evolving and becoming more intelligent. As of now, most voice recognition systems need to be prompted before they'll listen for user commands. But eventually, the technology will always be listening and will be able to recognize and distinguish between different voices.

    "It's coming but that's a very, very complex (problem)," Clayton explains.

    "There are so many fundamental things that have to be dealt with.... It's things like: who else is in the car, what else is being said ... all kinds of spurious things are coming in from the radio, from other people.

    "We have to continually poll the incoming audio to understand who is speaking, but with biometric verification -- it hears this voice, it knows that voice -- it (will eventually) automatically pay attention to that voice."

    Another major in-car technology player behind the scenes is Ottawa-based QNX, which is owned by Research in Motion. RIM purchased QNX in 2010 and took advantage of its software expertise to help build its upcoming BlackBerry 10 mobile operating system. QNX has also developed software for nuclear power plants; coal, iron, copper, and gold mines; steam and gas turbines; HVAC systems for big box stores; and sorting equipment used by the U.S. Postal Service.

    QNX's reputation for developing software with rock-solid stability has won it a number of contracts to provide technology for automakers, including Audi, BMW, Chrysler, General Motors, Hyundai and Toyota, said product marketing manager Andy Gryc.

    "Car companies generally tend to be pretty brand sensitive, nobody wants to get a 'blue screen of death' or pull over and have to reboot their car, so that's actually really helped in terms of our ability to service the market and we're continuing to build on that."

    Gryc assesses the current state of voice technology as a "mixed bag" but says the technology coming down the pipe is truly impressive -- although it may take a few years until it hits the mass market.

    "Most consumers view (today's voice technology) as kind of a gimmicky thing because it is sort of like, 'Well, do you really want to do some of those things with voice?' Clearly some things are very natural to do with voice, like navigation is one that's very, very clear that's a good use case," he says.

    The technology that's about two or three years out will really wow consumers, he says, as opposed to simply being seen as "kinda neat" today.

    "It'll certainly take a couple of years just to get through the automotive production life cycle. Even if automakers snapped their fingers and said today, 'I want to build a system that's just like Siri,' the technology exists to do it but it's just that they'd have to go through the process of building automotive-grade hardware. It's not acceptable to just take a tablet and put it into the dash."

    One of the challenges for automakers is in making sure that its technology ages well over the years and is built so it can be upgraded with software. Hardware upgrades are not practical, at least at this point, Gryc adds.

    "Swappable chips is a lot more complicated in a car environment just because of a lot of the restrictions you need to take into account for vibration -- or 'shake, rattle and roll,' as they call it -- and temperature sensitivities," he says.

    "Most of the car companies have not been looking at that as a solution."

    Ford has used software updates to add new features and address problems and complaints. Ford previously had major issues with the touchscreen side of its technology, which caused frustrating system crashes.

    "Ford kind of got penalized by being a pioneer," Newcomb says.

    "No one's really figured this out yet, it's going to take two or three years before this really shakes out."

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     August 31, 2012
  • Article

    In the United States alone, more than 160,000 phones are misplaced, lost or stolen everyday, costing Americans $30 billion a year.

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    In the United States alone, more than 160,000 phones are misplaced, lost or stolen everyday, costing Americans $30 billion a year.

    And the number of lost or stolen valuables is even higher than that.

    People are constantly misplacing smartphones, keys, wallets, and valuable electronics. 

    Vancouver's Linquet (pronounced Linket) is hoping to do something about it. Linquet claims to be "the easiest and most comprehensive anti-loss solution."

    Linquet users simply install a free app on their smartphone and link "linquets" to their smartphone via Bluetooth. When the phone or any linquet goes out-of-range (e.g. leaving home without your wallet) both their phone and their valuable will alarm, averting the loss.

    In rare cases where you don't hear the alarm, Linquet uploads both time and location to the cloud, giving users the power to find their valuables afterwards. And to find your in-range valuables (e.g. keys in a messy room), you can simply press a button on the phone to immediately locate your keys or you could press the button on a Linquet to find your phone.

    With Linquet you can prevent the loss of your phone and multiple valuables simultaneously. Linquet works automatically, so you don’t need to open the app or even bring out your phone. It protects your valuables constantly, even when the app is closed.

    Linquet was founded by Pooya Kazerouni and Vancouver superangel Mike Edwards is an investor. Use VIP passkey "LinkingEverything" to get early access to Linquet now.

    SOURCE: June 26, 2012

  • Article

    Microsoft Corp introduced its own line of tablet computers on Monday at a much-hyped press event in Los Angeles, marking a major strategic shift for the...

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    Microsoft Corp introduced its own line of tablet computers on Monday at a much-hyped press event in Los Angeles, marking a major strategic shift for the software giant as it struggles to compete with Apple Inc and re-invent its aging Windows franchise.

    The new tablet line, named Surface, includes a consumer device aimed directly at the Apple iPad, and another, larger machine designed to compete with lightweight laptops. Both include a keyboard that doubles as a cover, and both will be powered by versions of the new Windows 8 operating system.

    The move breaks with Microsoft's operating model of the past 37 years, which has relied on computer manufacturers to make and market machines running Windows. It could throw the world's largest software company into direct competition with its closest hardware partners such as Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and Hewlett-Packard Co.

    However, the success of Apple in recent years has underscored the benefits of an integrated approach to hardware and software, and Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said on Monday that the company "didn't want to leave anything uncovered" as it rolled out Windows 8.

    The new software is the biggest overhaul of Windows in years, and features a new touch-friendly interface dubbed "Metro". It is scheduled to be available for the Christmas shopping season.

    The lighter, thinner version of the Surface tablet, built on an Nvidia Corp chip designed by ARM Holdings, will be the first to market at the same time as the general release of Windows 8, and will feature Microsoft's popular Office suite of applications.

    It is comparable to Apple's new iPad, heavier but slightly thinner. It has a 10.6 inch screen and comes in 32GB and 64GB memory sizes.

    A second, heavier tablet aimed at the new generation of lightweight laptops called "ultrabooks", running on traditional Intel Corp chips, will come in 64GB and 128GB models. That will be available about three months after the ARM version, Microsoft said.

    The company gave no details on pricing, except that they would be competitive with comparable ARM tablets and Intel-powered Ultrabooks. They will be on sale online and in Microsoft's new brick-and-mortar stores in the United States.

    Microsoft shares rose 0.8 percent in after-hours trading, making up for a 0.6 percent drop to $29.84 in the regular Nasdaq session.

    Industry watchers were generally impressed by the devices' specifications, but doubted they were a sure-fire hit.

    "I don't see this as an iPad killer, but it has a lot of potential," said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at tech research firm Forrester. "This raises more questions than answers. The story that Microsoft told today was incomplete. They focused on the hardware innovation but didn't talk about the services, the unique Microsoft assets that could make this product amazing."

    Contrary to expectations, Microsoft made no mention of integrating content and features from its top-selling Xbox game console, the Skype video calling service it bought last year, or Barnes & Noble's Nook e-reader, its new partner in the electronic books market.

    Following Apple

    Sales of tablets are expected to triple in the next two years, topping 180 million a year in 2013, easily outpacing growth in traditional PCs. Apple has sold 67 million iPads in two years since launch.

    Apple, which makes both hardware and software for greater control over the performance of the final product, has revolutionized mobile markets with its smooth, seamless phones and tablets. Rival Google Inc may experiment with a similar approach after buying phone maker Motorola Mobility this year.

    Making its own hardware for such an important product is a departure for Microsoft, which based its success on licensing its software to other manufacturers, stressing the importance of "partners" and the Windows "ecosystem."

    "The question is why is Microsoft doing it?," said Michael Silver, an analyst at tech research firm Gartner. "Lack of faith in the OEMs (computer makers)? There's definite risk here as Microsoft increasingly competes with its customers."

    Microsoft stressed that "OEMs will have cost and feature parity on Windows 8 and Windows RT," meaning that it would not hold back any features from other hardware makers' Windows tablets.

    When it has ventured into hardware, the Redmond, Washington-based company has had a mixed record.

    Apart from keyboards and mice, the Xbox game console was its first foray into major manufacturing. That is now a successful business, but only after billions of dollars of investment and overcoming problems with high rates of faulty units - a problem which was nicknamed the "red ring of death" by gamers.

    The company's Microsoft-branded Zune music player, a late rival to Apple's iPod, was not a success and its unpopular Kin phone was taken off the market shortly after introduction.

    The company killed off a two-screen, slate-style prototype of a tablet device called Courier later that year, saying the technology might emerge in another form later on.