The Joy of Voice Command

By Zach Bowman  
If you’ve ever suffered through your bank’s automated phone system, you probably know voice recognition software leaves something to be desired. What should be a five second exchange between you and an actual person, or you and your phone’s keypad turns into blood-pressure raising event. After all, how many ways can you say “yes" into a phone? When Ford first announced its plans to jump into bed with Microsoft to create Sync, a voice-command system for in-car media, I had terrible visions of me shouting profanities at the dashboard of a new Focus. People in the lanes next to me would stop and stare, mothers would cover their children’s ears – the works.
Thankfully, both Ford and Microsoft seem to have done their homework. Sync is billed as a one-stop solution for all of your mobile media. Watching the promo video for the system, it’s hard not to look on with a cynical eye. In the video, a smiling young gent breathlessly commands phone calls, music and text messages by merely pushing buttons on the steering wheel and speaking out loud. Watching it reminds me a bit too much of those amusement park rides that take you through the hall of the future. Have a cell phone? Great. An MP3 player? No problem. Get text messages while you’re driving? Sync’s got you covered in the year 2008! Now where’s my robo puppy?
It’s not that I don’t think the premise isn’t great. Though talking on your cell while driving is illegal in California and a few other localities, in most of the U.S. drivers can chat as much as they like – weaving in and out of traffic and taking out orphanages as they go. Even worse are those that somehow believe they can pull off the reverse triple-axle of using a cell phone behind the wheel – the text while driving. It’s not like phones are the only culprits, either. iPods and other mobile media devices are just as bad if you’re looking for a song while flying down the interstate. It’s just that frantically mashing buttons on a steering wheel may be just as bad as eying a keypad while in the captain’s seat if the system doesn’t work properly.
To find out for myself, I asked a buddy who had just picked up an ’09 Focus, complete with Sync, to show me the goods. One of my first questions was how easy it is to hook up different media players. Taking along my iPod’s USB cable, all it took to get my Apple to talk with his Blue Oval was plugging it into the in-dash jack. With a quick word about not driving while distracted, Sync immediately recognized the device. Now how’s about searching?
Though I felt like a David Hasselhoff stand-in on the set of Knight Rider while barking commands at my buddy’s Focus, the system managed to pick up my selections without too much of an issue. Let’s recap. In less than five minutes I had plugged in a media player completely foreign to the rest of the system and was selecting songs by artist and title simply by saying them out loud. Wow. In one of those rare instances when what’s shown on the commercial is startlingly similar to what happens here in the real world, Sync was quick and easy to get going.
What’s more, the system does actually keep you less distracted. There is no fumbling for the player or mashing buttons on the center stack to try to get everything to work together. Isn’t this what technology is supposed to be like? An aid to our daily lives instead of being just another headache to suffer though? I’m not saying Sync is perfect. Like any voice-command system, it slips up occasionally and plays something completely different from what you asked for. The good news is that the right selection to wrong selection ratio is in your favor. Just as a word of warning, though: make sure there’s nothing too embarrassing on your playlist before showing the system off to friends and family. Honest, I don’t know how Nena and her 99 Luft Balloons got on there.

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