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Car, play me Eminem's latest hit

Online-music company Gracenote is developing a voice-recognition interface for car stereos. Photos: Car tech revs up

Online-music company Gracenote wants you to stop yelling at traffic and start whispering sweet nothings into the ear of your car radio.

The company says it's developing voice-recognition software that will help drivers maneuver though hard drive-based car music systems that hold thousands or even tens of thousands of songs. It's aiming the tool initially at markets in Japan, where it has had early success with dashboard music products, but it will ultimately be geared for other large markets as well.

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"Pushing buttons can be challenging when you're driving down the road at 80 miles an hour," said Ross Blanchard, Gracenote's vice president of business development. "The reason we thought we could do this now is that they've worked out the problems with voice recognition in the navigation and telematics market."

The development is part of a larger move by Gracenote and other companies to make digital music easier to use while on the move in cars or with cell phones or handheld devices. Those arenas rarely have as much flexibility as a personal computer.

Companies focused on cell phones are figuring out ways to distribute slimmed-down versions of music files and are trying to help predict what consumers might want to listen to or buy online, for example.

Gracenote's latest effort is merging voice-recognition technology provided by Scansoft with the company's own extensive database of information about CDs and digital music.

The company's other software recognizes music even when it's not identified, organizes it into categories, and builds playlists based on information such as genre, artist or popularity. The voice-recognition software will do the same thing, allowing people to build playlists by saying "Play Artist Rolling Stones" and "More like this," for example.

Blanchard said much of the company's work will come in ensuring that the technology responds to music requests like a record store clerk might, instead of a tin-eared robot. AC/DC can't be treated as "A C forward slash D C," or people won't use the product, he said.

The company will work with consumer electronics companies and carmakers over the next year, and plans to have technology ready by 2006, but it may not find its way into vehicles for several years after that, Blanchard said.

Meanwhile, carmakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo are incorporating iPod commands into the steering wheel or dashboard stereo for easier usage on the road. Other Mac enthusiasts are speculating that they could already use a Mac Mini or PowerBook in their car as a voice-recognition tool for accessing their digital music.