CES 2011: GM's 4G OnStar Prototype: Video Skype, So Much More

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Just yesterday AT&T and BMW announced their partnership for in-car cellular Web connectivity, but it's today's OnStar-Verizon prototype that's really proving to be interesting, if ephemeral. Why? Because the proposed tech allows things like Skype video chat, voice-to-text, vehicle and home monitoring from a smartphone, and more.

The advances in what the OnStar prototype can do with voice, video, and Internet access presented in the new OnStar prototype are huge. Ford's SYNC system is the only other in the U.S. market that has introduced such a massive feature set all at once--and OnStar, a General Motors company, would put SYNC to shame were it to incorporate all the functions of the prototype, to be displayed at CES this week fitted to a Buick LaCrosse.

A geek's fantasy
Key among the new services offered are voice-to-text and text-to-voice capabilities. Effectively translating speech into text means all manner of possibilities are opened: Web searches, text messages, status updates, vehicle controls all become possible with the right software. Likewise text-to-voice enables "safe" access--meaning eyes on the road--to written content from behind the wheel, including the same text messages, Facebook updates, and Google searches you just submitted by voice-to-text. Brilliant.

Pair the improved communication with Internet-based services and features with a pipeline of data broad enough to deliver rich multimedia content (Verizon's 4G LTE) and you have the ability to do things like video chat via Skype and search and display content from YouTube, both included in the OnStar prototype system. The car is starting to sound like a smartphone, isn't it?

Expand beyond these elements into smartphone and personal computer integration, and you're suddenly able to monitor live feeds of security cameras in your home from your car through the 4Home service. If you're not near your car you can monitor your car's immediate surroundings from its built-in cameras using your phone or computer. The system is even able to send live video of accident footage to a secure cloud-based server if an impact is detected, helping to identify the other driver--even in a hit-and-run.  

Features like live traffic sound pale in comparison, until you include the live-cam images of congested areas displayed on the central display, allowing you to see a coming traffic jam before you're stuck in the middle of it.

Sand-in-your-face reality
Just as you've been lulled into a peaceful reverie by the warmth of so much techie goodness, there's OnStar president Chris Preuss to kick a dose of reality in your face. "While we haven’t decided yet which of these demonstration features OnStar will offer, or when, these prototype applications show just some of what’s possible...," Preuss said in the official release. That's right--none of these excellent features are planned for production at this point, and there's no time frame for anything like them to arrive. Bummer.

On the other hand, the second half of Preuss's statement may give a clue as to why things like this aren't possible in cars just yet: "Any new future services OnStar might offer will meet our high standards for safety--making sure that drivers’ hands are on the wheel and their eyes are on the road," said Preuss.

Driver inattention is a well-known and proven cause of accidents, injuries, and deaths. Providing a nearly endless series of attention-sapping stimuli, even through the hands-free use of voice, could be a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, getting devices out of our hands may improve the situation even as we gain more access. The intersection of automobiles and technology will continue to be a focal point for safety advocates and car buyers as more and more of what's in our pockets, on our desks, and in our backpacks becomes as integrated into our cars as it already is in our lives.

The official announcement can be found on page two. We'll be live at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) through the rest of the week as well, so stay tuned for further details, images, and videos fresh from the floor.


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