Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.
When considering the great technology advances of the past few decades, GPS tends to get short shrift compared to such culture-rocking innovations as the internet and cellular networks. But it is a marvel nonetheless. Just a few generations ago, the idea of hopping in a car with no clue how to get to a particular destination was foolishness (or at least fodder for gender-stereotyping comedians). Today, with an inexpensive device or smartphone software, we can do so with near certainty of finding our way.

Developers of navigation apps and hardware must place great care in creating an experience that doesn't unnecessarily distract the driver. For example, quite a few involve "lane assist" features that starkly indicate the options when coming to a fork in the road so that the driver avoids having to stare at the screen too long to figure out the right path. In addition, spoken instructions have long been a defining commodity. While Telenav, for example, offers a free version of its navigation app, it doesn't include such audio. And Nokia recently followed suit with its distribution strategy around Nokia Drive, leaving the version with spoken turn-by-turn directions exclusive to its Windows Phones.

But as wonderful as navigation apps are, they have been about as passive an experience as watching TV, with the key difference of directing most of your focus away from their screens. Enter your destination, maybe pick a route, sit back and drive. Of course, there may be the occasional traffic alert (that will often be provided too late to be actionable). And then there is the new app Waze, which cues you in to trouble spots around town when you stop at a traffic light.

As our eyes have now been opened to what is possible with technologies such as Siri, though, we can imagine a more interactive but no less distracting kind of navigation experience, one that responds naturally to questions with network intelligence. At any point during a commute, to use a local example, one might blurt out something like, "How's the Grand Central Parkway looking?" The app would then report back on the level of traffic on that highway and suggest whether you'd save time switching over.

Or let's say a driver is heading to a party when he receives a request from the host asking to pick up some cake. The driver could have a short verbal exchange with the software about where might be a suitable bakery along the way and have the app seamlessly add in that side trip. Today, in contrast, one would have to either program the destination in advance or pull over, end the trip and search for and enter a new destination. And of course, not all roads less taken would need to be taken while on a current route. A driver whose memory was jogged while passing a pharmacy, could set a reminder to pick up a prescription on her commute tomorrow.

GPS technology has always shined when we are on an unfamiliar path. Pairing it with an intelligent network agent, though, could imbue even a familiar journey with an unfamiliar level of convenience.


Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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Switched On: A road trip with Siri