Nuance to Develop a Rival to Sync

Nuance Communications’ announcement of a partnership with Intel and Wind River Systems, developer of device software optimization (DSO) solutions, to develop a Linux-based infotainment platform for cars underscores the importance of voice as a tool in hands-busy, eyes-busy environments. 

Wind River Linux Platform for Infotainment is expected to be available by mid- to late- 2009 and includes the same Nuance speech recognition and speech-to-text technology found in the Sync system that Microsoft developed for Ford. But unlike Sync, Wind River’s harnesses the openness of the Linux operating system, so adding components is no longer a technical issue.

"Coming from a more developmental perspective, Linux offers the ability to change the kernel, so you can make changes to the way the OS operates," says Nuance’s vice president of evangelism Mike Wehrs. "So things you might like to see at a lower level at the OS, you can add. Whereas with other kinds of commercial [operating systems] you’re more reliant on the platform supplier." 

For instance, speechifying music playlist management or DVD controls isn’t an aspect that Sync allows because the architecture is standardized in Ford vehicles. Wind River’s system allows add-ons without much technological fuss.

Besides Nuance’s speech technology, Wind River also incorporates Bluetooth and noise reduction from Parrot, music management from Gracenote, and DVD playback by Corel’s LinDVD.

But as Wehrs points out, this advanced functionality can be self-defeating. Interfacing with even a speech system can draw a driver’s attention away from the road, which Nuance took into account when designing both Wind River and Sync. "It needs to be considered how much mental time people spend interacting with the devices or the controls of those devices inside the vehicle when they should be driving," he says.  "Because generally, you have lots of cognitive capability in your speech and auditory centers when you’re driving."

Speaking commands and listening to feedback naturally has a dramatic impact on a driver’s concentration. Thus, it’s important to make in-car communications and entertainment systems as intuitive as possible. Synonym understanding, according to Wehrs, is critical. For instance, if the driver says Next, does she mean play the next track on the CD or go to the next term on the navigation system. "You can’t just have a general engine and throw it at any specific problem and have it be accurate," Wehrs says.

A large part of Nuance’s creation of the interface involved committing to market research studies and surveying drivers in the relevant demographics as to what they might say in a car during a certain scenario. "We take samples of that in real life, and that’s how we build synonym tables," Wehrs explains. "And all of that is contextually relevant, so we look at what’s going on in the car when we’re deciding which synonym they probably mean."

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