CES - GPS navigation gets smarter

Navigation devices at CES have acquired new features such as speech recognition, 3D maps, and information on fuel prices at nearby gas stations.

The GPS gold rush is in full swing at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, with industry veterans introducing increasingly sophisticated navigation systems while newcomers try to get a foot in the door.

New PNDs (personal navigation devices) are adding features ranging from real-time information feeds (such as data on gas prices at nearby stations) to 3D maps (Tele Atlas technology in Mio Technology's C620) to speech recognition for hands-free operation (Garmin's Nuvi 880). Newcomers abound, and a couple of prototype systems integrate support for hands-free phone calls.

Let Me Tell You Where I'm Going

GPS giant Garmin brought a range of new and updated navigation products to CES, including the not-yet-released US$1000 Nuvi 880, whose sophisticated speech recognition technology permits completely hands-free operation.

The Nuvi 880 and the Nuvi 780 (which doesn't support hands-free operation) models are among several navigation systems that give users the option of augmenting the usual maps, directions, and point-of-interest data with real-time downloadable traffic alerts, news, stock quotes, movie listings, and gas prices from Microsoft Direct, a service slated to cost US$50 a year or a flat one-time charge of US$130 after a three-month free trial.

The service will integrate with Windows Live, too, so you can upload travel plans and destinations to your PND, without having to type them in to the device. Hewlett-Packard offers users of its iPaq Travel Companions a similar service through its new iPaq Navigate Web site, which also has community features and reviews.

TomTom, another popular PND maker, announced that it has added fuel prices to its companion TomTom Plus traffic and data service.

Dash, which last month began accepting prerelease orders for its Internet-connected GPS, has a big presence at the show. The company touts its devices as delivering the benefits of two-way communications: You get traffic and other information, and at the same time your device (anonymously) sends Dash information about your location and driving speed, which the service intends to use to generate better real-time traffic updates--once a critical mass of users is reached.

A WiMax GPS?

DMedia, which markets PNDs in the U.S. under the NavTour brand, was showing off prototypes of GPS devices that incorporate WiMax for receiving data. According to DMedia, WiMax--a fourth-generation wireless broadband technology that Sprint is planning to launch in the United States this year--will support streaming multimedia on PNDs, delivering a video of a point of interest rather than just a still photo, for example.

DMedia also showed a sleek next-generation PND, the G4; with its chic translucent black bezel, it looks more like a high-end TV than like a GPS device. Among other features, the G4 has an SD slot to accommodate cards where you've stored movies and music that you want to play on the device's media player. The G4 is also Bluetooth-capable, so you can use it with your phone as a hands-free device.

DMedia will offer customers MSN Direct service, as will NCC, a company that has introduced a new line of ruggedized Goodyear-branded GPS devices. Asus, best known for its notebooks and motherboards, is entering the handheld GPS market as well.

Landmarks in 3D

In a few short years, Taiwan-based Mio Technology has grabbed a 10 percent market share in the United States. thanks in no small part to distribution in Radio Shack. The company's new C620 PND will introduce special 3D maps from map data company Tele Atlas that show general topography and major landmarks in three dimensions. For example, the Eiffel Tower will pop up on the display as you approach it, and when a road becomes hilly you'll see the ups and downs. These 3D mapping features are launching first in Europe.

Mio also announced that all of its new devices will use Sirf InstantFixII GPS chips, which promise to establish a device's location significantly faster than their predecessors did. Sirf is a leading provider of GPS chips for smaller PNDs, PDAs, and cell phones.

Delphi, an automotive after-market firm, showed off its Dual-View GPS technology, which lets the driver look at maps while the passenger sees a movie or other content on the same screen.

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