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Protocol Next Up
Defining the future of tech and entertainment with Janko Roettgers.
Photo: Spotify

How Spotify’s Car Thing became a thing

How Spotify’s Car Thing became a thing

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: how a California startup helped Spotify build Car Thing, and what's next for Google's Android TV and smart home platforms.

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The Big Story

The technology behind Spotify's Car Thing

Making hardware is hard, especially for companies with no prior expertise in consumer electronics. So when Spotify set out to develop Car Thing, its new automotive display device, it got help from outside experts.

To make voice recognition for Car Thing work, Spotify relied on DSP Concepts, a Santa Clara-based startup that has built a software platform for audio hardware development. DSP Concepts CTO Paul Beckmann recently filled me in on how his team helped turn Car Thing from an idea into a real thing.

  • DSP Concepts worked on Car Thing for roughly 12 to 15 months, Beckmann said. "We like to get involved early," he told me.
  • The company was tapped to help develop the device's voice recognition, which includes what Spotify calls "adaptive interference cancellation" — algorithms that make sure Car Thing listens to voice commands, and not the lyrics of the song that's playing, backseat chatter, engine sounds or freeway noise.
  • DSP Concepts has been working on audio for carmakers like Tesla, Mercedes and BMW, giving the company a pretty good idea of how to deal with these environmental sounds.
  • Beckmann and his team were also able to provide input on the placement of the four microphones used by Car Thing for hands-free voice control.

However, Car Thing is very different from your typical in-car entertainment system. The device functions as an interface for the Spotify app on your phone.

  • Car Thing makes it easier to pick songs, playlists and podcasts while keeping eyes on the road, but the phone is still providing connectivity, and sending the audio via Bluetooth or line-in to the car stereo.
  • That setup makes isolating voice commands, and filtering out noise, a lot harder. "It doesn't have access to the music signal," Beckmann said.

A carmaker also has complete control over the positioning of microphones and the acoustic qualities of each cabin component. Car Thing, on the other hand, is very much a DIY solution; consumers decide where they want to place it, and the device needs to work with whatever car they own, no matter how old or banged-up it is.

  • In essence, Car Thing needs to work more like a smart speaker, which consumers may place in many different environments. That's why DSP Concepts did extensive recording and testing in real cars to optimize the signal processing.
  • On the flip side, smart speakers need to optimize for voice commands uttered from across the room. In a car, the person requesting the next song is never more than a few feet away. "Even American cars aren't that big," Beckmann said.

The biggest challenge: car dashboards, which are notoriously overcrowded. Among other options, Spotify ships Car Thing with a vent mount, and many consumers find that the vent grille really is the only option to add another screen to their car — which makes voice isolation all the more challenging. "The vent noise was surprising," Beckmann told me.

However, DSP Concepts could rely on some past expertise to deal with blasting ACs. The company has been helping GoPro to add wind noise suppression to the company's action cameras. Turns out that making audio work on a surfboard helps a lot when optimizing it on a dashboard.

Referencing the old adage that Inuits have dozens of words for snow, Beckmann joked: "After working with GoPro, we know 20 words for wind noise."

Overheard

"The ultimate smile-to-the-face, knife-in-the-back." —A Hollywood talent agent reacting to the news that AT&T helped The Wall Street Journal write a long profile on WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, which was published three days before news of the Discovery-WarnerMedia merger broke.

"Apple and Amazon using their unlimited cash flow to subsidize 'free' lossless audio to music customers has big 'Google offering free photo storage just long enough to starve its independent competitors to death before starting to charge' energy." Casey Newton on Apple and Amazon's new hi-fi music streaming feature.

A MESSAGE FROM DATASTAX

Protocol sat down with DataStax CEO Chet Kapoor to discuss how a modern, open data stack can help companies drive high growth and the role open-source Apache Cassandra plays in reliably delivering data at scale.

Learn more

Watch Out

What's next for Google's TV and smart home efforts

This week, Google held a virtual edition of its annual Google I/O developer conference, with a stage setup that looked like it was cribbed from "The Good Place." And speaking of TV references: Google used I/O to give developers an update on its Android TV platform as well as other smart home initiatives that tie into home entertainment devices like the company's Nest smart displays.

Here's what's new for Android TV:

  • Google boosted there are now more than 80 million monthly active Android TV devices out there in the world, which includes the company's own Chromecast with Google TV dongle.
  • Android TV saw more than 80% growth in the U.S. alone last year, according to Google.
  • The company is adding an Android TV remote to the next version of Android, meaning that users won't have to install the dated Android TV remote app anymore.
  • Android TV is also getting Stream Transfer and Stream Connect, two cast features previously launched on smart speakers and displays that make it easier to move media content from one device to another.
  • Android TV is being upgraded to Android 12 later this year, and developers can begin playing with a beta on ADT-3 devices now.
  • Google didn't share any news about the adoption of Google TV, the content-forward interface that first launched on the latest Chromecast last year. Sony and TCL have already committed to launching it on their 2021 TVs, but we haven't heard anything from other manufacturers yet.
  • News that Samsung was ditching Tizen on its new smart watches in favor of Google's Wear OS briefly led to speculation that Samsung may also embrace Android TV, but that's not the case. "Tizen still is the default platform for our smart TVs going forward," a Samsung spokesperson told me.

And now the rest of the home:

  • Google announced Wednesday afternoon that it would support Matter, a new connected home standard, across Android and Nest devices.
  • This will make Nest devices interoperable with other Matter-compliant gear, and compatible Nest speakers and displays will become Matter hubs.
  • Google is switching in-home video streaming to WebRTC, which should help reduce the latency when consumers access their security cameras on their TVs.

For more on Matter, which officially launched earlier this month, check out Stacey Higginbotham's FAQ. But in essence, the standard should make it easier for people to buy new gear without having to wonder whether it works with their existing setup. That's a good thing, because simplicity does matter.

(Sorry, but someone had to do it.)

Fast Forward

  • Disney+ growth has slowed down. The company added fewer new subscribers last quarter than analysts had hoped for.
  • On Protocol: AT&T learned that beating Netflix is hard. Netflix stuck to its lane. AT&T wanted to become a media company … and failed.
  • TiVo has lost key product personnel. Among recent departures are SVP Michael Hawkey and VP of product Chris Thun.
  • Oculus Quest gets native mixed reality capture. Users can now record themselves superimposed over gameplay. iOS only for now, but a Facebook spokesperson told me the company is working on bringing it to Android as well.
  • Also on Protocol: The global chip shortage could ruin Black Friday. Recent troubles at Sonos and Roku show what's in store for the rest of the industry.
  • Former HTC designer Scott Croyle has landed at Apple. Croyle is reportedly working on new Beats products.
  • Google has built a holographic display for videoconferencing. That company is really trying to turn everything into a Meet call, isn't it?
  • Redbox goes public, again. The DVD rental company is going the SPAC route, and wants to build tech for other companies to run their video subscription services.

Auf Wiedersehen

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I tend to keep a close eye on FCC filings for consumer electronics products. I've been doing this for years, and figured that I've seen it all. That was until this week, when I found the Mountain Dew Voltage Connected Cup, courtesy of Circle K. The gas station chain isn't really known for gadgets, but it went all out for this one. According to a manual included in the filing, the cup keeps your drink hot, which is already a bit baffling because … Mountain Dew? It also connects to your phone via Bluetooth, and lets you collect rewards points, which can then be traded in for swag (hats, hoodies and apparently more mugs). The manual also advises to "keep your cup connected for special alerts," without really explaining what a cup could possibly alert you of. Maybe it will be a warning not to drink hot soda?

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

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