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What if cars could understand ALL voice commands?

Q Actions Auto Mode

The following transcript was taken from a casual conversation with my son.

Son: Dad, what are you working on?

Me: It’s a new feature in our product called “Auto Mode”.  We just released it in version 2.1 of our Q Actions App for Android.  We even made a video of it.  We can watch it after dinner if you’re interested.

Son: The feature sounds cool.  What’s it look like?

Me: Well, here.  We have this special setting that switches our software to look like the screen in a car. See how the screen is wider than it is tall? Yeah, that’s because most car screens are like that too.

Son: Wait. How do you get your software into cars? Can’t you just stick the tablet on the dashboard?

Me: Humm, not quite.  We develop the software so that car makers can combine it with their own software inside the car’s console.  We’ll even make it look like they developed it by using their own colors and buttons. I’m showing you how this works on a tablet because it’s easier to demonstrate to other people – we just tell them to pretend it’s the car console.  Until cars put our software into their consoles, we’ll make it easy for users to use “Auto Mode” directly on their phones. Just mount the phone on the car’s dash and say “turn on auto mode” – done!

Son:  So how do you use it?  And what does that blue button with a microphone in it do?

Me:  Well, we want anyone in the car to be able to say a command like “navigate to Great America” or “what’s the weather like in San Jose?” or “who are Twenty One-Pilots?”.  The button is simply a way to tell the car to listen. When we hear a command, our software figures out what to do and what to show on the console in the car. Sometimes it even speaks back the answer.  Now we don’t always want people to have to press the button on the screen so we’ll work with the car makers to add a button on the steering wheel or even a microphone that is always listening for a special phrase such as “Ok, Q” to start.

Son: How does it do that?  I mean, the command part.

Me: Good question.  Since you’re smart and know a little about software, I’ll keep it short.  Our software takes a command and tries to figure out what app or service can best provide the answer.  For example, if the command is about showing the route to say, an amusement park like Great America, we’ll ask Google Maps to handle it, which it does really well. Lots of cars come installed with mapping software like Google Maps so it’s best to let them handle those. For other types of commands that ask for information, like “what’s the weather like in San Jose” or  “who are Twenty One Pilots”, we’ll send it off to servers in the cloud. They then send us back answers and we format it and display it on the screen – in a pretty looking card like this one.

Me: Sometimes, apps running on our phones can best answer these commands and we use them to handle it.

Son: Wait. Phones?  How are phones involved? I only see you using a tablet.

Me:  Ahhh.  You’ve discovered our coolest feature.  We use Apps already installed on your phone.   Do you see those rectangle-looking things in the upper right corner of the tablet? The ones with the pictures and names of people? Well, those are phone profiles.  They appear when a person connects their phone, running our Q Actions app, to the car’s console through Bluetooth, sort of like you do with wireless earbuds. When connected, our software in the console sends the phone your commands and the phone in turn attempts to execute the command using one of the installed apps.   Let me explain with an example. Let’s pretend you track your daily homework assignments using the Google Tasks app on your phone. Now you hop into the car and your phone automatically pairs with the console. Now I asked you to show me your homework assignments. You then press the mic button and say “show my homework tasks”.  The software in the console would intelligently route the command to your phone (because Google Tasks is not on the console), open Google Tasks on your phone, grab all your homework assignments and send them back to the console to be displayed in a nice card. Oh, and it would also speak back your homework assignments as well. Let’s see what happens when I tell it to view my tasks.

Son:  Big deal.  I can just pick up my phone and do that.  Why do I need to use voice for that?

Me: Because if you’re the driver, you don’t want to be fumbling around with your phone, possibly getting into an accident! Remember, this is supposed to help drivers with safe, “hands-free” operation. You put your phone in a safe place and our software figures out how to use it to get the answers.

Son: Why can’t the car makers put all these apps in the console so you don’t have to use your phone?

Me: Great question.  Most people carry their phones on them at all times, especially when they drive.  And these phones have all their favorite apps with all their important personal information stored in them.  There’s no way the car makers could figure out which apps to include when you buy the car. And even if you could download these apps onto the console, all your personal information that’s on your phone would have to transferred over to the console, app by app.  Clumsy if you ask me. I prefer to keep my information on my phone and private, thank you very much!

Son: Oh. Now I get it.  So what else does the software do?

Me: The console can call a family member.  If you say “call Dad”, the software looks for ‘dad’ in your phone’s address book and dials the number associated with it.  But wait. You’re probably thinking ‘What’s so special about that? All the cool cars do it”. Well, we know that a bunch of apps can make phone calls so we show you which ones and let you decide.  Also, If you have two numbers for ‘dad’, say a home and mobile number, the software will ask you to choose one to call. Let’s see how this works when I say “call Dad”.

Me: It asks you to pick an app.  I say ‘phone’ and then it asks me to pick a number since my dad has both a home and mobile number.  I say ‘mobile’ and it dials the number through my phone.

Son: Cool. But what if I have two people with the same name, like Julie?

Me: It will ask you to pick a ‘Julie’ when it finds more than one.  And it will remember that choice next time you ask it to call Julie.  See what happens when I want to call Jason. It shows me all the people in my address book who are named Jason along with their phone numbers.  If a person has more than one number it will say ‘Multiple’

Son: Wow.  What else?

Me: How about sending a message on WhatsApp? Or setting up a team meeting in the calendar. Or joining a meeting from the car if you are running late. Or even checking which one of your friends have birthdays today.   All these actions are performed on your phone using the apps you are familiar with and use.

Son: Which app shows you your friends birthdays? That’s kind of neat.

Me: Facebook

Son: I don’t use Facebook. I use Instagram. It’s way better.  Plus all the cool kids use it now.

Me:

Me: You get the picture though, right?

Son: Sure.

Son: So what if all of my friends are in the car with you and we connect to the console?  How does the software know where to send the command?

Me: We use the person’s voice to identify who they are and route the command to the right person’s phone automatically.

Son: Really? That seems way too hard.

Me: Not really.  Although we haven’t implemented it yet, the technology exists to do this sort of thing today.

Son: Going back to main screen, why does the list of actions under ‘Recent’ and ‘Favorites’ change when you change people?

Me: Oh, you noticed that!   Whenever the software switches to a new profile, we grab the ‘Recent’ and ‘Favorites’ sections from that person’s phone and display it in the tablet, er, console.  This is our way of making the experience more personalized or familiar to the way the app appears on your phone. In fact, the ‘Favorites’ are like handy shortcuts for frequently used actions, like “call Mom”.  

Me: One more thing.  Remember the other buttons on the home screen? One looked like a music note, the other a picture for messaging and so on.  Well, when you press those, a series of icons appear across the screen, each showing an action that belongs to that group.  If your phone had Spotify installed, we would show you a few Spotify actions. If Pandora was installed, we would show you Pandora actions and so on.   Check out what happens when I activate my profile. Notice how Pandora appears? That’s because Pandora is on my phone and not on the tablet like Google Play Music and YouTube Music.

  

Me: Same is true for messaging and calling.   Actions from apps installed on your phone would appear.  You would simply tap on the icon to run the action.   In fact, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that all the actions that show up on the console are also in the ‘My Actions’ screen in the Q Actions app on your Android Phone.   Check out what’s on the tablet vs. my phone.

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Son: Yep.

Me: Oh and before I forget, there’s one last item I’d like to tell you about.

Son: What’s that.

Me: Notifications.  If you send me a message on WhatsApp, Messenger or WeChat, a screen will popup letting me know I have a message from you.  I can listen to the message by pressing a button or respond to the message – by voice, of course, all while keeping my focus on the road.   You’ll get the response just as if I had sent it while holding the phone.

Son:  Cool. I’ll have fun sending you messages on your way home from work.

Me: Grrrrrr.

Son: Hey, can I try this out on my phone?

Me: Sure.  Just download our latest app from the Google Play Store.  After you get it installed, goto the Preferences section under Settings and check the box that says ‘Auto Mode’ (BETA).  You’ll automatically be switched into Auto Mode on your phone. Now this becomes your console in the car.

Of course, things appear a bit smaller than on your phone than what I’ve shown you on the tablet.  Oh, and since you’re not connected to another phone, all the commands you give it will be performed by apps on your phone.   Try it out and let me know what you think.

Son:  Ok. I’ll play around with it this week.

Me: Great.  Now let’s go see what your mom’s made us for dinner.