Driving Along in My Automobile
Driving is becoming an increasingly luxurious experience for those who can afford the frills. Owners of GM vehicles can press a button and tell a live adviser to make hotel reservations or send flowers, thanks to Onstar's Concierge service. Later this year the U.S. company will offer voice-activated cell phone calls and a personalized website, and eventually traffic reports. Mercedes drivers can help themselves to text-based weather, sports and stock updates from U.S. company ATX, watch TV or bark orders to their radio, thanks to Mercedes-Benz's own Linguatronic system. Snarl-up warnings are piped in by German firm Tegaron. Italian on-board telecoms company Viasat foresees its customers shopping or downloading music while stuck in traffic jams. Carmakers call it "telematics" interacting with services by means of text, buttons, touch screens, voice or sensors while driving. Is it a dream come true (Time in 1944 reported on an amphibious futuristic auto that let you "plug in the two-way radio to order your dinner ahead"), or an attempt to stand out from the pack? Telematics can make driving easier and safer: voice activation means eyes stay on the road. Viasat and Tegaron both contact emergency services when prompted by a car's crash sensor and send help to its precise location. And nothing could be safer than driving the Buick Bengal concept car. Voice-activated control panels exist only as wraiths projected on the windscreen. The leather-covered dashboard is one big speaker, and there's no need to take your hands off the (wooden) steering wheel. When it comes on the market maybe it will walk on water too.
Choose Your Virtual Weapon
The U.S. TV show BattleBots, which last week started a run in the U.K., has a loyal cadre of fans who tune in to watch homemade robots slug it out until one of them is reduced to a pile of junk. Now BattleBots the website (www.battlebot.com) lets you put together a virtual robot, adding a tank tread here, a sawblade there, to see how it might look in action. As well as providing news of upcoming competitions, pro tips on bot-building and rules for entry, the site is one of the first to employ the new SVG graphics and animation file format that lets you customize your onscreen destruction machines. You can't make a complete blueprint or engage in virtual combat not yet, anyway but online brainstorming might save time when you get down to the nuts and bolts of building.
Britain's ElectroTextiles, with international design group IDEO, has dreamed up two varieties of soft cell phone: a pocket mobile and a wrist device. It's ElekTex material combines conductive fabric with microchip technology. A PDA-friendly soft keyboard that can roll up in a pocket is expected next year. ElectroTextiles sees no end of applications for ElekTex, including clothes and toys. Next stop the beanie phone?
The Talking Net
Last year it webcast the Paralympics live from Sydney, this year it's adding its voice to the Web literally. New York-based WeMedia, a leading provider of information and services for disabled people, has launched a talking Web browser designed to help blind and partially sighted Net users. The WeMedia browser has large buttons and changeable color contrast, and allows key commands to ease navigation avoiding the need to select small icons with a mouse. A free version is available at www.wemedia.com.
His Master's Voice
RoboScience's RS01, launched last week, was not meant to be a product but a showcase for light, high-powered robot technology. Yet the pooch proved so popular that a few pricey models will go on sale worldwide in September. The mechanical canine can read out your e-mail, guard your house and, soon, even play football.