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Keep Your Eyes on the Road and Your Hands on the Wheel: Controlling Your Smartphone via iLane

Compelled to check messages on your BlackBerry even when you’re in the car? A novel device lets you open, read and reply to e-mail messages and more with simple voice commands.

I have to come clean. Under most circumstances I’m a careful, if vaguely distracted, driver. But send me out on the road, in the middle of the day, when the world expects me to be at my desk, and the temptation to poke away at my BlackBerry is pretty much overwhelming. And I’ve given in to it—yes, I’ve read and sent e-mails while driving. There. I said it. I know, I know. It’s way worse even than talking on a mobile phone. And if just talking on a cell phone is the new DUI, what kind of criminal does this make me?

That’s what brings me to a new device out of Kitchener, Ontario, from Intelligent Mechatronic -Systems. It’s called the iLane (www.ilane.com) and its mission is to make my indefensible compulsion to communicate from my car less dangerous for me and the world I drive around in. I say less dangerous because clearly the only thing we should all do when driving our cars is drive. But we’re talking harm reduction here.

How? Well, let’s take a look at just what the iLane does.

Diving In: The Trick to the Deck

The iLane makes the smartphone smarter with a straightforward trick. It reads your e-mail to you on command and takes verbal orders that allow you to manage your inbox, make and receive calls, and handle your calender. And it works remarkably well.

About the size of a deck of cards, the iLane—which comes with a high-quality Bluetooth headset—plugs into the car power adapter (or “cigarette lighter receptacle” to those of a certain age) and links with your BlackBerry. Compatibility with other smartphones is promised for coming months, but for now it’s the BlackBerry or nothing.

Initially, it seemed about the most inscrutable device I’ve come across—figuring out how to turn the little thing on and off was an adventure. But setup is simple, and chances are you’ll get it right the first time. The iLane application loads itself wirelessly onto your smartphone through the BlackBerry’s Web browser and provides the key communications link to the iLane itself. There is no need to install software from your PC. You can use your car’s own Bluetooth capabilities if present, but I opted to let the iLane’s native Bluetooth radio handle everything.

Once you’re past the installation and setup, you’re good to go. Slip the headset on your ear, keep your phone in your pocket where it belongs, and wait a few seconds for the iLane to sort itself out and get data from your BlackBerry. You could read the manual before you really get into it, but where’s the fun in that? I like to dive right in and see what happens.

What happens is that a woman’s voice greets you by name and asks what you’d like to do. The tone is mechanical, but pleasant enough. She then gives you some options, starting with a suggestion that she read your new e-mails to you. Just say “Read e-mail” and off she goes—no voice training required.

She’s not the most discriminating reader and, of course, will have no sense that most e-mails are loaded with junk text like disclaimers. Fortunately, you can butt in and, with no regard for her feelings, just say “Next message,” and she’ll skip right to it. It’s actually oddly satisfying to break the normal rules of civil discourse and just cut her off. I’m told a male voice is in the works for those who want to practice interrupting men.

Tapping the Other Features

Text to speech is one thing, but what about the other way around—as in, what do you do when you want to reply to a message? Well, the technical hurdles of converting your speech to text—particularly when you can’t see how your speech is being converted to text (remember, you’re driving)—are daunting. So the iLane folks have come up with an interesting work-around: You can record a 15-second verbal reply that gets sent as an MP3 attachment to your reply e-mail. This is a bit trippy for your reply-ees. Some will be intrigued, some will find it annoying, and some have even reported being vaguely disturbed by receiving a recorded response to their e-mail. But welcome to the future.

Making phone calls? It’s a snap. There is a voice-dialing option for placing calls by phone number, but you just say “Call by name” to phone someone in your address book. You give iLane lady the name of the person you want to call and she does a fairly good job of nailing the search—even on nonobvious names—and then asks if you want to call the person’s mobile, home or office line, depending on the numbers she finds. Simply speak your choice and the iLane triggers the call on your BlackBerry and pipes it through to your headset.

Hanging up is a simple matter of tapping on a button on the earpiece. You can answer incoming calls by tapping on the same button when your BlackBerry rings.

In addition to setting up a voice interface for most of your e-mail functions, the iLane will alert you to upcoming appointments in your calendar. It also does a few other things like read news, sports or local weather reports, which are capabilities I didn’t find all that interesting.

For all its features and functionality, the iLane is a work in progress—although to be clear, I’m convinced of the utility of this device and I can recommend it to anyone who spends time in a car. But the current version loses connections too frequently, and voice accuracy, though high, isn’t perfect. It’s weird, but something about machine speech recognition triggers an almost unfair impatience in people. Control a computer through a keyboard or mouse and you’ll put up with all kinds of hassle. But put speech recognition in front of things and it has to work perfectly all the time or the machine is just no good. It’s a paradox, but the closer we get to real interaction, the more we assume real intelligence and the less tolerant we are of inaccuracy.

It’s Steep But Still Smarter

Fortunately, advances are coming quickly to the iLane, thanks to a novel future-proofing strategy. The device already comes with two reasonably powerful processors, only one of which is currently operational. As capabilities are added, according to the vendor, the second processor will be activated, bringing with it greatly increased accuracy and a raft of new features.

Which is cool, except that this strategy comes at a price. The iLane is currently listed at a steep $599 CAN, or about $534 USD. This is likely two or three times what you paid for your smartphone. Plus, the system also requires a subscription service at $7.99 per month, premised on the notion that purchasers will be willing to pay for ongoing support and a rather thin news and weather service. (Um, isn’t that what your car’s radio is for?)

Given the pace of communications evolution, it’s only a matter of time before all the features of the iLane are subsumed into the phone itself, but there’s enough going on with this device that that absorption point is likely still a few years off.

In the meantime, if you must—absolutely must—deal with e-mail from your car, this is mandatory, though costly, equipment.

About the Author

Mark Tamminga is Office Managing Partner of Gowling Lafleur Henderson’s Hamilton, ON, location, where he practices real estate law. He is also coauthor of the ABA book Extranets for Lawyers.

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