If you’re one of the 12 million drivers who use real-time traffic data from Waze, there’s a drawback — the smartphone app depends on users to collect traffic data, but if a driver is stuck in traffic or spots an accident, that’s exactly when they shouldn’t be fiddling with their phone. That’s why the Kleiner Perkins-backed startup developed a new voice interface, which it’s launching today.
Michal Habdank-Kolaczkowski, the company’s director of communications, recently demonstrated the new controls for me. The demo took place in the TechCrunch office, rather than a moving car, but I still think Waze has come up with a pretty elegant solution. Habdank-Kolaczkowski showed off reporting traffic to Waze with just a couple of voice commands — “report traffic”, then, when prompted to choose from different traffic levels, he said, “moderate.”
And when Waze team members say the experience is “hands free,” they mean it. To activate voice control, Habdank-Kolaczkowski didn’t have to touch his phone at all. He just waved his hand in front of the device, a gesture that was detected by the iPhone proximity sensor. (So, okay, technically, you’re using your hand, but in a natural way that shouldn’t interfere with your driving.) You’ll need to have the Waze app on for this to work, but that’s normal procedure anyway — drivers are supposed to leave the app on during the commute, so that’s it’s automatically gathering traffic data as they drive.
Waze VP Community Geographer DiAnn Eisnor says Waze already prevents users from typing when they’re driving and the app is open. Voice controls were an obvious next step, and for a while, the company was hoping that Apple would make Siri voice commands available to third-party app developers. Eisnor said she’s still hopeful, and when if it happens, Waze will happily jump on-board. In the meantime, the company moved forward on its own, building the new interface using open source voice technology.
For now, the voice commands are iPhone-only, and they’re limited to a few key use cases — reporting traffic and asking for directions home or to the office. Eisnor said Waze plans to expand the app’s vocabulary over time, and also bring voice commands to its Android app.