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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Bring back useful radio channel buttons in cars

I had another thought about my so-called always-on virtual channel idea from earlier this week. Some of this would probably also be a really good thing to use for audio in a car. Here's how I came to this conclusion.

Let's say you have some kind of music player, like an iOS device, or whatever floats your boat. Odds are, it's going to have hundreds or thousands of songs on it, and it might have a few playlists. You've probably created more than a couple playlists over the years, and it can be nice to use them to switch moods.

However, to actually do that, at least with a halfway recent iPhone, the interaction goes more like this:

First, get Siri's attention with either the BT button (hope you have your headset on), or the home button (hope it's not buried in your purse or in your pocket).

Second, wait for it to respond and notice the music stops.

Third, give it a command like "play playlist 90's Music".

Fourth, wait while it chews on that and presumably splits up the words and has an army of low-paid workers in some distant land parse them. You didn't think they were really doing this with computers, did you? (Okay, maybe it does, but given the hit-or-miss nature, sometimes I wonder.)

Fifth, assuming it understood you, it should announce the new playlist and start doing it. Otherwise, depending on what it DID do, you might have to scramble around to cancel it. "No, no no! PLAY The Police, don't CALL the police! No! Abort!"

Or, you know, you could flaunt the law and start fiddling with the actual music player UI and risk getting a ticket (or, well, crashing your car).

I think all of this is garbage. My car's radio has 6 presets for the FM band. If I actually listened to FM stations, I'd probably configure them to 6 different stations, each with their own (hopefully varied) flavor of music. I'd flip around based on what my mood was.

Why can't it be that simple for playing from a device? Take those same six buttons and let me map them to six of my playlists. They're nice raised buttons which are easy to hit without looking, and there's no speech parsing with all of its foibles. Just smack a button and you're off to the races.

Granted, I'm coming from the perspective of a relatively old car which still has a first-class radio with all of its own knobs and buttons. I've seen what's been happening with some newer vehicles which tend to smoosh all of that stuff together into a ridiculous modal interface from hell. When I see something resembling a monitor built into the dash, I just know it's going to suck.

Simple things should be simple. This should be stupidly obvious for a high-risk environment like driving, but it seems the auto manufacturers have other things in mind.