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Microsoft Cars: patent filing expands vision for entertainment control software

With talk about convergence, Microsoft comes up a lot. They’re into gaming (Xbox), all things computers (Windows etc.), music (Zune and Windows Media Player) and they want to get more involved in the living room (Media Center) and other environments (Surface).  One area that wouldn’t have struck me for a top ten list of their target markets is my car, but turns out that is a destination already on Microsoft’s road map.

msft autoGPS or operating system related software technology would be the first guesses for where and what they’re focusing on, and that’s half right.  Entertainment, however, is also a big part.   Microsoft already has a Window’s Automotive Platform and they’re aiming to use it to integrate and control entertainment devices.  The launch was notable enough, even, to be the subject of a Bill Gates  keynote speech.  Now a new patent aims to expand the vision.

If you missed or forgot the initial press releases (as I did) the platform’s first product, a partnership with Ford called Ford Sync, was announced last January and is due on dealer’s lots this fall in 2008 model cars.   The system promises an on-board voice activated control system that can work with and control most MP3 players (including iPods) and most cell pones.  It uses a combination of Bluetooth and USB inputs to connect devices and is upgradeable to insure future compatibility with different brands. The system also has some promised “wow-factor” features like audible text messaging (it will convert text messages including shorthand expressions like smiley faces to sound and read them to you).

According to new patent, it now looks like Microsoft is planning to expand on Sync and add to it, more of their vision for the future.  Joining the Surface project in the portfolio of “next generation Microsoft” is a heads-up display concept that might expand their automotive interface control systems.

Imagine you can control not just your cell phone, or your MP3 player, but any on-board entertainment (portable or not, and regardless of manufacturer).  Also imagine, the same system can control features like climate settings, or radio functionality, even a possible internet connection.  This software is monitored from a transparent screen projected on your windshield (in other words, a heads-up display).   You can interact with the screen by voice commands “Computer: volume up.  Temperature sixty eight degrees” or you can use steering wheel buttons, maybe it will even react to head movements.

That’s, at least, the imagination of Microsoft developers, or work being done in their research labs. The patent was filed in February 2006 and is now public (via Ars Technica).

Heads-up displays are not new.  Besides widespread use in the aviation industry, they are also in production cars (BMW M5), or being experimented with, around the automotive industry.  Microsoft’s approach to bring a centralized operating system that can handle modular inputs (MP3, phone etc) may be novel, and it may be in the future.  Advances in voice control buoyed by Microsoft’s purchase of Tellme in March may also be significant. On the other hand, the new patent may also be nothing more than a land grab by Microsoft for intellectual property territory that may in the future prove valuable. 

A patent on a research project is a pretty low risk investment but it is also a far cry from a realized or ready-for-market project.  At the moment there is not much to indicate whether this will make the leap between those distant points, or in any way become a priority for further development at Microsoft.  It’s not a stretch to see it incorporated int the work already done with Sync, but that doesn’t guarantee it will see daylight.  Still,  the fact that it is on their agenda at all marks it as something interesting to watch out for.

Looking to the future, Microsoft is very much focused on how and where to bring connected computing functionality and services to areas of our lives away from the office be it the living room, the car, or somewhere else.

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