Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman

A number of automotive trends were evident at last week's CES, notably how Artificial Intelligence, smart audio and voice control systems are shaping the in-car user experience. To learn more, we caught up with Bill Wyman, VP - Global Marketing – Car Audio, Harman.

With voice commands emerging as the norm for managing in-car experiences, clear in-vehicle communication is becoming increasingly important. In addressing this, Harman used this year's CES to showcase its Premium Communication solutions, a novel modular offering designed to elevate today's in-vehicle communication environment. By integrating microphone, voice processing and noise cancelling technologies, the supplier claims its Premium Communications can enable clear, frustration-free conversations for all occupants within a vehicle -- with each other, and with digital voice assistants and external call recipients. Built on AudioworX, Harman's proprietary, open-framework development platform, the key features of Premium Communications include:

  • In-Car Communication – which allows the driver to communicate directly with passengers in the back seats without needing to turn around or take their eyes off the road.
  • ClearChat with Far-End Noise Cancellation - combines beamforming microphones, echo cancellation, and noise reduction algorithms to remove unwanted cabin noise -- including air conditioning, road noise or rear seat passengers - for listeners on the receiving end of a call. 
  • Personal Communication Zones - gives every occupant the freedom to simultaneously interact with their voice assistant of choice or have a phone call with confidence that call recipients won't hear the music or entertainment from others in the vehicle.
  • Multi Voice Personal Assistant Capability - which allows occupants the freedom to use the voice assistant of their choice.

In addition, Harman's showcase considers the convergence of several megatrends, namely shared mobility, streaming services, connectivity, autonomous driving, and AI. These are accompanied by a growing consumer demand for personalisation – today's consumers want and expect their experiences to mirror their individuality and adapt to their tastes and desires. In addressing this growing need, Harman developed Personi-Fi, a cloud-based brand agnostic entertainment solution that uses personal sound tailoring captured in a simple user interface to optimize the listening experience on any device, anytime, anywhere.

What opportunities do Voice Personal Assistants open up for Harman?

Let me start by giving you a little bit of background into how we think about the audio experience inside the cabin. Obviously, Harman has a rich heritage in audio performance. That is one of the core things, no matter what we do, we always want to perfect that audio performance. We always try to link that back to what is the exact audio profile of the music signature, the sonic signature based on our brands and based on what the OEMs are trying to achieve.

When we develop a system, we want it to sound perfect but now we are looking at it and saying: 'what are the other areas that can be benefits to consumers inside the cabin?' We are thinking about the different places that what we can do that can really help them. Voice is a big one, right now. Voice is coming into the car. It starts with phone calls, and everybody now takes phone calls in the car. That is a kind of a standard. So we want to ensure that phone call is as good as it could possibly be. And we have all gone through that experience of when you received a phone call, the person you are talking to may not be able to hear you or you hear them. To have a frustration free, seamless, clear conversations. That is our ClearChat technology. It is just rooted in consumer behaviour and what we are seeing from the trends of where audio needs to move to. Because we have this base of audio performances from where we want to start from, we are looking at those next level features, the added value that we can provide.

The second piece of it is if you look at the market then there has been big cars followed by a switch to small cars and now we are starting to move back again to big cars. SUVs are once again becoming a main driver of the vehicles that are going to be on the road. And as those cars get bigger again, and more people populate those cars, there will be more different use cases in those cars, including a shared vehicle experiences. Now you have more people riding in the front and guests riding in the back so how do you have more effective conversations in all these scenarios, whether it is bigger vehicles, shared ride? So that is what the In-Car Communication is all about, making sure that the front to back and back to front is as seamless as possible. Because we have leading technologies in microphones, voice processing, noise cancellation then we are perfectly suited to be able to create an experience that makes those conversations seamless, easy and you do not have to scream from the front or back of the car to make yourself heard or hear what people are saying.

So those are two things that, as we look at where we know consumers are going with their activities inside the car, we are trying to ensure that we are providing that value to the end consumer.

To what extent can your voice command solutions be scaled across segments? 

Our Premium Communications is intended to be a scalable solution. We have developed a system that goes from everything from what we call a P1 - which is a base system - all the way up a premium core which has all of the bells and whistles and everything in between. The idea is, ideally, to leverage the technology and hardware that is already in the car for the audio system at that level. So a lot of the audio systems will have microphones, headliner speakers or headrest speakers and so on. So the idea is to leverage those to add these additional values and functionality. So we are not layering in additional cost from a hardware perspective. As you scale up your audio performance, now you can scale up these additional features and benefits, so that it becomes absolutely from an entry-level vehicle all the way up to the top of the line of vehicles. From small vehicles to big vehicles, our goal is to have the solution that can be met in all of those different segments.

Is Harman working with carmakers to pioneer a more modular approach to sound?

Part of it goes into the scalability that we just talked about. But absolutely, one of the things that are really important for us is that we have looked at a situation today where we have said: Okay, there are two things which are going on similar types of scenarios with two different types of vehicles, namely electric vehicles and entry-level vehicles. How do you provide a more cost-effective and weight effective use of electricity for those two segments in order to be able to create a solution that can work for people at different levels, whether it is a price point, say, for an EV because they have a desire to be more economical in their driving habits. How do you provide those different solutions? If we go back probably ten years or so, most premium audio systems were very high-end, top-of-the-line trends. We are really trying to make sure that great benefit of car audio can be brought down to every single vehicle. One of the things that is really interesting that we have seen from JD Power is that a 30 per cent increase in overall vehicle satisfaction is when a great audio system is in the car. I don't want that just to be for the top 5 or 10 per cent of people. We want to bring that solution and experience to every single level within the vehicle.

Sound is not just about music. How is Harman integrating its acoustic expertise to create a package for OEMs? 

There are a couple of things that we try to do. And I am going to break it up into brand as well as technology. Let's start with the brand. One of the things that is really important for us – and this is the reason why we have a portfolio of brands at Harman – is because we really believe that each brand has its own unique essence, sonic signature and personality which fits with particular OEMs. It is not a one-size-all solution. So what goes inside a Lexus should not be same as what goes inside a Toyota. Because we have a portfolio of brands, we can provide that differentiation and those unique solutions. That is really important for us. That is the heritage of being a house of brands.

The other thing that we look at is across divisions. Harman has several divisions. And we always try to find what are the great technologies, great experiences that we can find from other divisions within Harman which we can bring the life within the vehicle. We were talking about this before, so how do people use are portable products? What are the key features that they like most? We developed a technology called Virtual Venues. That was about two years ago that we first launched at CES. That technology was built directly from our pro division who have the ability to go into large venues. They do all the acoustic measuring of those venues so they know exactly what the sonic profile of that venue is. We picked that up and said 'let's take that data and turn it into something that allows you to create that experience inside of a vehicle'. It is very unique. And because we have a broad set of divisions that work in audio across every step from production, capture, recording, playback, then we have the ability to touch all those different areas. We can leverage that expertise across our system and bring a solution to the OEMs. It is really unique in the marketplace at the moment.

In a truly autonomous car, the occupants are sitting in different places hence I guess that this needs a rethink on the location of speakers what is happening there? 

It is actually one of the things that we are showcasing at CES this year. There are two components to it. One is our industrial design capabilities. It is about bringing the brand to life in a meaningful way in a new environment. For example, today, I am going to say that it is 'easy' to create a system for a car but I know it is not because it takes a lot of work for our engineers and OEMs. But we know how to do it. There is a seat, a steering wheel, a windshield and everyone is facing the same way so the sound stage needs to be in a certain place. We know how to do that. When you move to full autonomy, the car now looks like a living room. And the original placement of speakers is not going to be the way it needs to be designed. We also want to make sure it fits within a family room visual aspect. Who are industrial design team can help create that effect that perfect design element that will fit within that new cabin experience.

The second piece of it is: how do we understand the acoustics of those different cabin designs? We have a technology that is called Virtual Works which allows us to virtually build systems before a physical vehicle is ever created. So what that allows us to do is literally understand the acoustic signature of, 'hey the seats are facing this way, or it is a bench or it is a couch, or it has a table inside the cabin so what impact will that have on the audio?' How do we ensure that every occupant has the perfect sound regardless of where they are sitting? What we are demonstrating today at our booth in the sound design corner here at CES is actually the ability to take that one step further. When full autonomy has the ability to change the seating, we can transform the sound stage to work in a situational position. We are doing that through the Virtual Works technology and we are leveraging our expertise in speaker arrays and through some technology that we introduced last year called Sound Steel which really helps to ensure that each passenger gets the exact right sound profile. So all of these different technologies we are bringing to bear on the future of autonomy. We know that in-cabin experience is going to be wildly different and excitingly different than what it is today. We are ready for it and hoping that our technologies allow our OEM partners to fast-forward their design and the implementation of autonomy. We are looking forward to it.

Increasing levels of electrification mean noises from the road or wind are more pronounced. How is Harman addressing that through its sound systems?

Noise management is a huge opportunity for us. When we think about noise management, it is every aspect of noise that can enter the cabin. You can experience it in the Premium Communications Vehicle. So it is everything from people talking to windscreen to road noise, engine noise. For all of those things, we have all of the technologies to be able to help us mitigate the noises that you don't want and amplify the noises that you do want. Everything from the lightweighting of vehicles has an impact, electric vehicles and all of these new technologies that are coming onto the market we have the ability to do noise management across every spectrum. So noise management is critical to what we are doing. We know that the overall noise audio experience is critical to optimise with all of the new technologies that are coming in. Our HaloSonic suite of technologies that we have developed addresses this area.

If tomorrow's mobility is about sharing cars, what does that mean for car audio?

Personi-Fi is a technology that is being showcased here. It is about taking your personal listing profile with you. So headphones and possibly speakers into your car and that is optimised for a shared environment. That technology will know which seat you are sitting in. It will understand your personal profile. We think this is a great way for people to really enjoy personal profiles and their personal preferences in the shared driving scenario.

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