Sync to adopt more conversational commands
The voice recognition software that has made the Apple iPhone 4 such a big hit is finding its way into automotive infotainment.
Nuance Communications, the company that developed some of the voice technology used in Apple's Siri software, is working with Ford Motor Co. and General Motors to enable motorists to use conversational commands.
The key is an algorithm that enables the computer to determine the speaker's intent. If a motorist asks, "Is it raining in Miami?" Siri assumes the questioner wants a weather report.
If the vehicle's infotainment system can determine intent, motorists can use conversational language to operate their infotainment systems.
Most voice recognition in vehicles requires drivers to memorize a list of commands to operate their cell phones, navigation systems and other functions.
Nuance's goal is to make Sync easier to use for first-timers, said Brian Radloff, Nuance's director of automotive solutions. "It's a trend across the auto industry," Radloff said. "Everybody wants the first-time user to engage and have a good experience."
Nuance, of Burlington, Mass., supplies voice technology for Chevrolet MyLink and for Sync, Ford's system for entertainment, phone calls and other functions.
Ford took a step toward conversational usage with its second-generation version of Sync, which was introduced in 2010.
Ford and Nuance created a vocabulary of 10,000 "aliases" -- or alternate word usages -- that motorists could use for commands. And if the motorist made a simple command such as, "I'm hungry," the navigation system provided a list of restaurants.
About 80 percent of Ford Sync owners use its voice recognition feature, according to company spokesman Alan Hall. The trick is to coax the remaining 20 percent to adopt it.
Last summer, Ford and Nuance previewed their next-generation voice technology for journalists in Dearborn.
Hall said it would be premature to assume that Nuance will provide the next improvement. But he said Ford would like to adopt a Sirilike voice recognition app -- that is, software that can interpret the speaker's intent.
"We consider it to be the next step to getting to a natural voice solution," Hall said.
But Ford is not quite ready to unveil a Siri-style system. First, the company will send a free improvement to current Ford owners that simplifies MyFord Touch, the center-stack interface that enables drivers to operate heating and cooling, audio and navigation.
Users had complained that the display screen's graphics for MyFord Touch were cluttered and difficult to understand.
That improvement will include some minor changes to the voice recognition software -- including a tweak to speed up responses -- but a major improvement will come later.
What would an improved voice recognition system be like? For starters, Nuance won't add significantly to its list of 10,000 aliases, according to Radloff. "We've gone about as far as we're going to go on that path," he said.
Likewise, an improved Sync won't greatly expand its points-of-interest database. The system already covers major chains such as Starbucks, McDonald's and Hilton hotels.
"I wouldn't cover the little mom-and-pop shops or bicycle shops," Radloff said.
But the new system will enable motorists to use a more conversational speech pattern. The goal is to enable the motorist to get the desired result 90 percent of the time with a single command.
"That's progressing quite well," Radloff said. "It's definitely the future direction that the auto industry is going. If the motorist asks, 'Is it sunny in Detroit?' the computer would interpret that as a weather request for Detroit."
While Ford works on Sync, GM is making similar efforts to improve its infotainment lineup: Chevrolet MyLink, Cadillac CUE and Buick IntelliLink.
John Correia, GM's senior manager for systems integration, said GM and Nuance are adapting some of the voice technology developed for OnStar's Gen 9 voice recognition software, which was launched last year.
"First, we tried to get people to learn how to say a command the right way," Correia said. "Now we've evolved from that to a system that recognizes words well enough that we can progress to the next level."
It may be another five years or so before automakers can match the performance of Apple's Siri voice technology, Correia predicted. Because of that lag, Correia and Radloff believe that the mobile phone industry will continue to mold consumer expectations.
Said Radloff: "What we see in phones today is what we'll see in cars tomorrow."
You can reach David Sedgwick at email@example.com.