Monday, August 10, 2009

Microsoft Sync

So my dad got a new car...most specifically, he got a Hybrid Ford Escape. Yay for the Hybrid part, not so yay for the SUV. But he could have done much worse :)

Anyway, the car came with Microsoft Sync installed, which is this voice UI system for controlling your iPod (or Zune as they happily state!) and your mobile phone. Many of you know that I'm not a fan of voice UIs in general, so initially I didn't think I'd be very impressed with this either. A voice UI, in a car, with road and wind noise. How is this ever going to work!?

And initially, we couldn't get it to work. There's this button on the steering wheel with a picture of a face, and I guessed that you were supposed to press that in order to say something. And being a long-time Push To Talk user, of course I assumed that the interface was hold down button, talk, let go of button. I couldn't really imagine it working any other way. So my dad and I sit out in the car for like 20 minutes listening to this thing beep at us and then every time we tried to start talking, it would make these "error" know, the down tone ones that tell you that you did something bad. But for the life of me I could not figure out what that wrong thing was. So we gave up and my dad was ready to return the car to get a new voice system :)

We came inside and I read through the manual for it and discovered that it had been designed in a very odd way. Holding the speech button down for > 3 seconds meant to disable the speech recognition function! So every time we tried to talk and heard that "error" beep it was signaling to us that we were turning off voice recognition. Seems like a voice system should be able to speak back to you and at least tell you how you're screwing up :)

Anyway, once we knew that we were just supposed to tap the voice button, then wait until the system asked us what we wanted, then speak, it became really easy. And it was really cool! So much so that I wish I could get it installed in my car! You can tell it to play particular playlists, artists, albums, or genres by name, and my most favorite feature is the "play similar music" command which uses the metadata of the current song to play music that's like what you're playing now. For those who know my research, I've done a lot in this area of similar media, so it was awesome to see a product that is putting some of those ideas in action! You can also ask it "what's playing" and it will tell you the artist and song title of the song that's playing. That one is a little less useful, since the artist and song title are on the screen right at the top of the dashboard :)

So in the end, it was pretty cool and I wish it was something that could be put into any car. For me, a car is a once in 15 years purchase and I'm only 7 years into my current one. It will be interesting to see how things like ipods and phones get integrated in the future and how easy it will be to upgrade these sorts of systems for people who want to drive their cars until they die. And interesting to see how voice makes its way into more products - hopefully in ways that don't require reading the manual!