Voice recognition firm Nuance opens first Michigan lab

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Farmington Hills — You may have never heard of Nuance Automotive. But the technology company based in Massachusetts likely hears from you almost every day in your car.

Nuance develops voice-recognition software that’s in about 110 million in-car infotainment systems and 50 million portable navigation systems worldwide, including Ford’s Sync 3 and Chevrolet’s MyLink. Any time you use voice commands to play music, look up an address or call a friend, you’re likely using Nuance technology.

The company on Thursday opened an automotive lab in Farmington Hills, a 4,500-square-foot facility that will house about a dozen employees who will test the company’s latest listening software. Those products include Dragon Drive, a Siri-like in-car personal assistant that can make calls, set appointments, turn up the air conditioner and find destinations. Nuance employees moved into the space this summer.

“Our new Detroit automotive lab is a testament to Nuance’s ongoing commitment to support and collaborate with the world’s automakers creating the next generation of connected cars right here in Detroit,” said Arnd Weil, senior vice president of Nuance Automotive.

The new facility features a “usability lab” with a driving simulator and observation room, as well as vehicle noise playback and cell network simulators, so Nuance can develop systems that recognize voice commands even over loud road noise or poor wireless network connections.

Understanding voice commands is a big focus of Ford’s Sync 3. The automaker said it can understand and process less-formal requests — “Find Metro Airport” vs. “Find Detroit Metropolitan Airport,” for example — and has run a series of Web ads in which Sync 3 understands requests of complicated intersections, like Guanonocque Street and Churchill Road in Auburn Hills. In another ad, Ford’s Sync 3 understands users even when their speech is garbled by mouthfuls of hot dogs.

“The end result is the vehicle basically understands you as you speak naturally,” said Pavan Mathew, senior director of automotive content strategy. “We’re testing it to be able to understand certain accents and languages, and as you speak to another passenger, you can speak to the vehicle.”

Nuance’s newest Dragon Drive system is embedded in the vehicle. Without being connected to a phone, it can still save personal profiles including contacts, destinations and music preferences and access them through a series of simple voice commands and prompts.

Its capabilities expand when it’s paired with a phone. When a driver first turns on the car, the system verbally provides updates on personalized items: stock prices, sports news or meetings for the day. Users can choose to receive the update every time they enter the car or once a day.

Dragon Drive system can be reconfigured for automakers to their specific designs and needs; the first generation of the system is used in Toyota Motor Co.’s Entune-equipped vehicles.

“It’s an easier way to stay productive while you’re driving,” said Shawn Nowlan, senior principal manager of Nuance Automotive. “This makes the operation of a vehicle a lot safer.”


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