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New in-vehicle technology shows we’re using cars ‘as much for living as traveling’

A widescreen display rises from the instrument panel in Harman’s 2021 ExP Demo Car.  (Tribune News Service)
A widescreen display rises from the instrument panel in Harman’s 2021 ExP Demo Car. (Tribune News Service)
By Mark Phelan Detroit Free Press

“Your vehicle, your sanctuary” was a theme at the virtual CES show of new electronics and entertainment equipment recently. Pandemic shutdowns have accelerated the yearslong trend for vehicles to double as home theaters and offices on wheels.

Cadillac showed the unfortunately toaster-y Personal Autonomous Vehicle, a concept for a self-driving car whose interior is essentially lounge seating for a small group, with adjustable lighting, aromatherapy and perhaps a daiquiri dispenser. GM isn’t making any images of the PAV available – understandable when you see brief exterior views in the video titled “The First Night Out that Stayed in the Car.”

Harman, busy transforming itself from an audio supplier into a company that does everything from speakers to augmented reality navigation and livestreaming, leaned into the concept of car as entertainment center.

Mockups showed headrests with wings that fold down to put speakers around the occupants’ head, delivering better surround and the capability for occupants to simultaneously listen to different sources at varying volumes. It’s an improvement of the idea for headphones that let kids rewatch “Frozen” endlessly while mom and dad conduct a conference call in one front seat and listen to a podcast in the other.

3D surround sound headrests

Harman developed the system, called the personal audio headrest, with headrest supplier Grammer. It can be used in as many headrests as the vehicle’s price will support and should be in production soon.

Another system, ClearChat, uses electronics to make it easier for one person to take a hands-free phone call while others continue to enjoy music.

“The car is becoming the third space for people,” said Chris Ludwig, vice president of Harman’s early pursuit and innovation concepts development team. “COVID-19 means people have spent more time doing things in stationary cars. We’re developing technologies to make in-vehicle time as much for living as traveling.“

Vehicle interiors can also be optimized for creating content, including using high-resolution, professionally placed cameras and microphones to create TikTok videos, blogs and broadcast-quality audio and video. Harman’s 2021 ExP Demo Car showcases those abilities and more.

“It’s leveraging the car for things other than travel,” Ludwig said. “Using cameras and microphones to create a studio.”

Interact with the band

The car can become an extension of other performance spaces, as Harman demonstrated with its Live Interactive Virtual Experience in a fast-paced musical set from Detroit duo the Messenger Birds.

The goal is to provide better sound and more interaction with artists than a normal streamed concert, something performers and fans would find especially welcome in a year when COVID-19 has shuttered most in-person venues.

The demo car’s seats adjust for the best audio and video, the instrument panel converts to a widescreen stage and interior lights adapt to the music. The 5G link allows viewers to vote on upcoming songs, wave virtual light sticks that are duplicated on stage and create the feedback loop that makes live performances unique.

“It’s a new way to think about concerts,” Ludwig said. Called the Drive-Live Concert EXP, the system should be ready for production audio systems by the end of 2021. Needless to say, the interactive extras are hidden from the driver if the vehicle is in motion.

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