As we first reported in December, Ford and Microsoft have been busy working in collaboration on in-car communications and entertainment, to be unveiled this week at CES. Well, here we are today at CES, and we can spill the beans on details of the system to be marketed under the name "Sync."
Initially to be made available in twelve 2008 models across the Ford family and across the entire 2009 lineup from FoMoCo, the service will be a fully-integrated, flash memory-based system that enables drivers to call hands-free and to control a range of digital audio via voice commands and buttons mounted on the steering wheel. The system is based on an a Microsoft Auto operating system comprising an ARM 11 processor, 64MB of DRAM and 256MB of flash memory. Microsoft tells us that its software will be updatable, probably via the USB port.
The major interface for Sync-enabled cars will be a small text display that shows up on the stereo head unit or on a display nestled in the instrument cluster. For hands-free calling, the system will enable car occupants to pair up to 12 different phones via an always-on Bluetooth connection. As with some of the more advanced factory-installed hands-free systems we've seen, Sync will automatically copy phone books from cell phones or other Bluetooth-enabled wireless devices. These entries are then cataloged by the system, which enables callers to place calls using voice commands; the system's voice recognition system has settings for English, Spanish, and Canadian French.
Text-to-voice technology also means that the system will read aloud incoming text messages as they arrive. While there is no means of dictating a verbatim reply, Sync gives drivers the option of replying to texts with one of a number of stock responses programmed by voice command and sent as text.
Sync also will support Bluetooth audio for streaming digital audio from mobile devices that hold music files, and can even be used to stream Internet radio stations from Web-connected smart phones and PDAs.
For drivers who want to play music from their MP3 players, Sync improves on the basic auxiliary input jack by adding a USB 2.0 port for connecting iPods, Zunes, and a range of other players.
The most advanced technological feature of the Sync system is the ability to play songs from a connected media player via voice command. When a new player is plugged in for the first time, Sync takes a few minutes to index all the audio files, after which drivers can use voice commands to select music by genre, album, artist or even track title. Commands such as, "Play artist Rolling Stones," or, "Play track 'Brown Sugar,'" will give drivers direct control over their music library. According to Microsoft, the same voice-selection interface also works for digital audio tracks stored on USB thumb drives.
Another advanced feature of music selection is Sync's command to "Find similar music," which prompts the system to use a series of algorithms to search a player's database for tracks with similar acoustic characteristics to the one playing.
We're looking forward to finding out how this works in practice when we get a hands-on Sync demo tomorrow. But any skepticism about the voice-command aspect of the system is tempered by the fact that Microsoft provides the backbone for the voice-recognition platforms in Honda and Acura models, which we have found more than competent in our reviews.
The first models to offer Sync as an option in fall 2007 include Ford's Five Hundred, Explorer, Focus, Freestyle, and Fusion; Lincoln's MKX and MKZ; and the Mercury Milan.