Ford Syncs Up with Microsoft to Smooth the Highway for Digital Music Players and Cell Phones
Aug 31, 2007 12:00 AM
Ford Motor Company used to tout its innovative ways with the slogan: "Ford has a Better Idea." In recent years, however, the car maker's high-tech star has been anything but ascendant as sales dropped off and some corporate R & D funding had to be siphoned off to save the company. But now with the help of Microsoft, the auto maker has unveiled some clever technology that does seem to be based on a better idea.
Buyers of a dozen 2008 Ford, Mercury and Lincoln models and all the entries in the company's lineup for 2009 will be able to enjoy a new factory-installed, in-car communications and entertainment system that could help change the way drivers use portable digital music players and mobile phones on the road. Called Sync, the fully-integrated, flash memory-based system provides the capability for motorists to bring onboard many popular digital devices and operate them using voice commands or button controls on the steering wheel or radio/navigation console. The exclusive digital pipeline technology, which is based on a Microsoft Auto operating system, includes an ARM 11 processor, 64 MB of DRAM and 256 MB of flash memory.
Yesterday I received a tour of the new system's capabilities from Ford engineers and found the technology quite useful. With Sync, for example, the entire playlist of your Apple iPod (or Microsoft Zune, PlaysForSure players and most USB storage devices) is available for play just by telling the car's audio system to cue it up. All you need do to set it up is to plug the device into a USB 2.0 port, let the system complete a digital handshake and then employ voice commands to select a track. Commands such as, "Play artist 'Jimi Hendrix,'" or, "Play track 'Purple Haze,'" allow full verbal control over your music library (album and genre commands also work). Or if you prefer, hit a few buttons on the steering wheel or head unit display to choose a tune. Another interesting feature is the command: "Find similar music," which prompts Sync to search a music player's database for songs with similar styles to the one that's playing. Sync supports MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV and PCM formats.
In addition, cell phone calls or text messages arriving through your mobile handset can be piped in and listened to hands-free via an always-on Bluetooth connection. Up to 12 different phones can be paired up, allowing everybody in the passenger compartment to participate. Sync's text-to-voice technology enables the system to read aloud incoming text messages as they arrive. Although you can't dictate a verbatim reply, you can reply to texts with selections from a series of stock responses programmed by voice command and sent as text (yes, it translates emoticons). Sync will also automatically transfer phone books from cell phones or other Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices. The system then catalogs the entries, which permits users to place calls verbally. The system's voice-recognition system is fluent in English, Spanish and French.
Sync fairly seamlessly integrates a vehicle with popular portable electronic devices: Without much effort, a Ford engineer yesterday wirelessly accessed a British Internet radio station using his Blackberry and then transferred the music stream to Sync, and thus the car's audio system, via its stereo Bluetooth link.
But perhaps more significantly, the built-in Sync computer and Windows CE software will be readily upgradeable to support new devices and services. In the first case, Sync can potentially communicate with nearly any computer in the vehicle. That means drivers should soon be able to access a vehicle's security system (permitting remote unlocking, for instance) or engine, brake system or other computer (perhaps allowing easy transfer of vehicle service data to dealer repair departments).
Further, the potential opportunities for car nuts and enthusiasts of all sorts seem endless. Engine tuners, for instance, might want to download vehicle performance data to their PDAs to watch on the display how their motor tweaks are working. Depending on how Ford handles programmer access to Sync (to maintain safety standards and avoid legal liability), the potentially open-source system could provide a field day for enthusiast user groups (read nerds) interested in developing all kinds of custom applications.
For more information, see: http://www.syncmyride.com/
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