By dividing the world into 3m x 3m squares, each with a unique 3-word address, what3words enables the most precise reference to any location around the globe. In contrast to GPS coordinates, 3-word addresses are easy to remember and, more importantly, they are designed for explicit and error-free voice input in 26 languages. I had the good fortune to talk to these innovators about what3words and their vision on voice input in vehicles.
Collecting your children from the Kindergarten at ///novelist.evolves.proofs, meeting your fiancé for a picnic in the middle of Hyde Park at ///sparks.impact.quit, or witnessing motor sports history at ///exclude.exulted.florists, the famous Pikes Peak, home of the International Hill Climb: what3words and their 3-word address system is transforming the voice-powered landscape and revolutionizing the way we think about global address systems.
By dividing the world into 3m x 3m squares, each with a unique 3-word address, what3words enables the most precise reference to any location around the globe. In contrast to GPS coordinates, 3-word addresses are easy to remember and, more importantly, they are designed for explicit and error-free voice input in 26 languages.
Currently used by various businesses, governments, and individuals, this technology is now integrating with the automotive navigation system included in the all-new Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX), featured in the new A-Class.
At our Nuance Auto Forums in Detroit and Europe, attendees had the opportunity to experience the 3-word address system and to hear the what3word story and vision presented by Gigi Etienne, what3words Partnerships Manager, and Ashley Cashion, Head of Automotive and Mobility at what3words, personally. For those who could not attend, I had the good fortune to talk to these innovators about what3words and their vision on voice input in vehicles.
What was the motivation for developing the 3-words address system?
A simple way to talk about location is quite important to many business fields – from logistics and delivery, to photography, to travel or navigation businesses; however, there are fundamental problems with traditional addresses.
Street addresses are often complex and ambiguous and take a frustratingly long time to input into car navigation systems. While voice is helping to avoid clunky interfaces, vocalizing traditional addresses leads to frequent errors and miscommunications. For example,15 Ammanford Road and 50 Ammanford Road are hard for a speech recognition system to distinguish between. Street names are far from unique: there are 34 Victoria Roads in London alone, and an incredible 632 Juarez Streets in Mexico City, meaning drivers risk selecting the wrong destination.
Voice-powered devices are fast becoming an integral part of our lives, but in a recent independent study we conducted across motorists in the UK, US, and Germany, we found that 38% of drivers struggle to be recognized by their in-car device or find them difficult to program. We also found that every single satellite navigation user polled said they had gotten lost following directions at some point, and 60% cited things they dislike about using these systems, including cumbersome interfaces, unreliable voice input, and the fact that their satellite navigation system doesn’t recognize addresses or takes them to the wrong place.
what3words is the only addressing system built for voice. It uses a list of around 25,000 dictionary words that are easy to program into voice-controlled assistants. It accounts for similar sounding words like toffee and coffee, and words that are easily confused like stole and stolen. 3-word addresses are all unique, and similar sounding ones are placed far apart to make any mistakes obvious to the user.
Equipped with precise global addresses, what3words enables drivers to navigate accurately wherever they’re going, whether it’s a specific entrance to a building, or in the middle of a field. Voice navigation will become a standard way to input addresses, rather than a cool but unreliable feature.
How many words do you need to cover the whole world with three-word addresses and in how far did you influence the distribution of the three words?
The what3words system uses a wordlist of between 25,000 and 40,000 dictionary words, depending on the language version used. The algorithm sorts the list so that simpler and more common words are used in more populated areas, and longer words feature in unpopulated areas. The words are randomly assigned as this makes errors much easier to detect and correct. If similar 3-word combinations were placed near each other, it would make it much more difficult to notice a mistake. As it is, the system has been designed to have similar 3 word addresses a long way away from each other, so it is immediately obvious if a mistake has been made. For example ///table.chair.damp is in America, while ///table.chair.lamp is in Australia. It means you never set off in the wrong direction.
With our hybrid approach for automotive assistants, Nuance puts special emphasis on the availability of services even when internet connection gets lost. How does w3w ensure that 3-word navigation will work even if there is no internet connection?
The what3words system is fixed, so it never needs updating and it can work offline when you don’t have a data connection. Our partner apps and services typically launch using the online version of our system, but offline support is now being included in more and more apps that use what3words – and of course, our own apps work offline.
Looking at the future of mobility and delivery of goods, it is most likely that drones, flight taxis etc. will play a role. How do your 3-word addresses take the 3rd dimension into account – for example, if we are thinking about roof-top delivery with help of a drone?
what3words is already being used by a number of drone companies such as Hylio, Copter Express, and Altavian – enabling their users to identify a precise location to make a delivery as traditional addresses aren’t accurate enough to identify a drone landing spot. what3words is currently a 2D system and we recommend adding as much detail as possible, like Flat 6, 5th floor, ///table.lamp.chair. And, if and when height becomes helpful to specify, perhaps when rooftop drone deliveries become commonplace, we have various options for including this information.
You are already collaborating with various car manufacturers today and your technology has a clear advantage when it comes to voice control. What is your vision of how voice interaction with our cars will evolve in the years to come?
When we were writing the algorithm behind the what3words addressing system, we found ourselves in a unique position. We knew voice technology was on the rise, so we were able to create, from the start, the world’s first addressing system specifically designed for voice.
Voice is the next frontier of user-interface. It can now be used to instruct our machines and devices while keeping our hands and eyes free to cook, exercise, drive safely, and do anything else that used to be awkward or dangerous to do while typing and swiping.
The evolution of in-car speech recognition systems will be a driver in both convenience and safety. Removing the distraction of looking at your car’s device while driving allows for a heads-up display, so motorists can keep their eyes on the road. Similarly, the ability to navigate to a precise location is going to become increasingly important as consumer expectations continue to rise.
Mercedes-Benz is the first automobile manufacturer to integrate what3words into its head unit. All new A-Class vehicles have the technology built into their infotainment system, and 700,000 vehicles already on the road were able to prompt an over-the-air update to become what3words enabled. This means, for the first time in a car, navigation destinations can be entered and searched for with the help of 3-word addresses. Our prediction is the use of what3words in this way will become a new global standard, redefining the way we navigate.
Which application of 3-word addressing are you particularly proud of and why?
It’s difficult to call out one particular partner, but the Mercedes-Benz integration was a huge achievement for us and we expect to see our technology integrated by more global brands of a similar caliber over the next couple of years. The process was also extremely fast, with conception to implementation taking only around six months.
We are continually inspired by what people are doing with our technology – from individuals to large businesses, governments, and NGO’s. Being able to supply technology to those working in disaster response zones, such as NATO and the Red Cross, has been incredibly rewarding.
Patrick Gälweiler is senior digital content and social media manager for Nuance’s automotive business. Prior to joining the Nuance team, Patrick spent years in public relations, corporate and marketing communications with a strong focus on B2B automotive communications.
Most recently, Patrick worked as Corporate Communications Officer for a global automotive engineering service provider. There he was responsible for the development and implementation of an internal and external communications strategy with a strong focus on digital communication channels.
Patrick spends his free-time with DIY and restoring Vespa oldtimers.