The Growing Market for Hands-Free Navigation

Talking gadgets for use in cars and other settings are getting cheaper and promising new location-based services.

GPS systems "talk" to us to give us directions. Now it's getting cheaper to talk to them.

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Navstar Technologies, a startup in Overland Park, Kan., recently announced the Voice Navigator, an inexpensive GPS system.

N. Douglas Pritt, Navstar's CEO and president, says that it will sell for less than $200—he's hoping for $149—when it comes to the market late in the second quarter. "I wanted to provide a low-cost navigation unit that could be used by anybody," he says.

One reason the Voice Navigator is cheap: It lacks a screen. Pritt thinks voice navigation will be all that's needed. It also does not include weather or traffic features, though Pritt says those can be added if there is demand.

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Navstar's Voice Navigator

About the size of a deck of cards (2 by 4 by 0.75 inches), the Navstar connects to your cell phone via Bluetooth. You tell it where you want to go by spelling out your destination (it will ask for confirmation). It will then use the cell phone connection to download map information from servers that Navstar hosts. The cell phone is only used for one to three minutes as it downloads directions. Otherwise, your phone is available for calls.

The device also includes three buttons: a bell for emergency services, a point-of-interest button with various presets (for instance, the recreational vehicle crowd might search for the nearest campground) and an itinerary button that users can preset (Navstar will then walk them through the directions based on how far they've come).

David Chamberlain, a principal analyst at In-Stat Research, says that voice navigation solves a significant problem with GPS systems—using them while in motion. "The screen says don't do it when you're driving, and we do. Being able to handle voice recognition is a terrific safety improvement," he says.

Chamberlain notes that high-end GPS systems do use voice recognition—a case in point would be the Garmin Nüvi 880, announced at the Consumer Electronics Show. It will cost around $1,000. That device is more sophisticated than Navstar's Voice Navigator—you can ask it to find a restaurant or a gas station without having to spell out the words.

Meanwhile, voice navigation is also coming to cell phones. Carriers like Verizon and Sprint have developed voice-driven navigation services, and Vlingo, a startup in Cambridge, Mass., that offers voice-recognition services such as Web search for cell phones, says it will add a voice-driven speech service in the second quarter.

Chamberlain says that voice recognition is a last frontier, not just for GPS systems but for other kinds of interfaces as well.

Navteq supplies the digital maps to Navstar. Robert Gourdine, Navteq's director of North American marketing, says that he expects to see more such announcements over the next year or two. "The whole idea of a voice interface that skips that cumbersome process of pushing buttons—it is the Holy Grail."

Gourdine says without voice-driven interfaces, GPS will never be a mass-market application.

Navstar's Pritt says that he's hoping to tap into ways to use the GPS for marketing goods and services. He hopes he can cut deals with restaurant chains to send routes to their restaurants, for instance, or develop an "estimated time of arrival" service. But for now, he needs to get a foothold in the market. "For me, this is the year of the voice-driven interface," Pritt says. "I want to get out there as soon as I can."

A Growing List of Navigation Players

As a report from PC World noted, the Nuvi 880 and the Nuvi 780 models (which don't support hands-free operation) are among several navigation systems highlighted at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that give users the option of augmenting the usual maps, directions and point-of-interest data with real-time, location-based services. Such services include downloadable traffic alerts, news, stock quotes, movie listings and gas prices from Microsoft Direct, a service slated to cost $50 a year or a one-time charge of $130 after a three-month free trial.

Also highlighted at CES:

• The Microsoft service will integrate with Windows Live, too, so you can upload travel plans and destinations to your personal navigation device without having to type them in.

• Hewlett-Packard offers users of its iPaq Travel Companions a similar service through its new iPaq Navigate website, which also has community features and reviews.

• The makers of TomTom, another popular personal navigation device, announced that it has added fuel prices to its companion TomTom Plus traffic and data service.

Dash, which last month began accepting prerelease orders for its Internet-connected GPS, says its devices deliver two-way communications—you get traffic and other information, and at the same time your device (anonymously) sends Dash data about your location and driving speed. The service intends to use this information to generate better real-time traffic updates once a critical mass of users is reached.

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