01 December 2008


When is a car assistive technology?

Well, first, when you need to get someplace that you can't walk to. I live 90 miles from my campus. There is no mass transit, nothing like mass transit. No planes or trains. I can't reasonably walk. Google Maps says it would take "1 day and 3 hours" by foot. So the car becomes an "assistive technology" if you like that term. Or a "tool," if you prefer Universal Design and Toolbelt Theory.

But what if your car was a multi-function tool? If it allowed you to do many things at once? What if it actually became a more universally designed environment than your, say, classroom?

I recently wrote this paragraph as part of a paper: "I drive 90 miles (145 km) from my home to the campus. The “radio” in my car links to my phone. It also accepts a flash drive. I can talk on my phone without touching it. I can send text messages and emails by speaking them. I can listen to my text messages. If I say, “USB,” the “radio” will begin playing books or academic papers that I have downloaded at home, converted to mp3 sound files through free web sites, and slid onto the flash drive, or it may begin to play audiobooks read by wonderful narrators which I have downloaded from LibriVox. And while I am not fully fluent in the abbreviated spellings of text messaging, my car’s radio seems to know it all."

This was near the end of a very long 12,000+ word paper regarding misconceptions of socio-cultural theory and literacy.

I was discussing the shift in the form and fixedness of our texts. But I was also discussing Sync, a system which comes on Ford vehicles these days. Sync may be the best single new Microsoft application since Word was introduced
. It represents not just vast improvements in driving safety (hands on the wheel, eyes on the road), but a sense of the future of media flexing to your needs at each moment.

For those of you who follow my Toolbelt Theory, you know that I believe - absolutely - that no one medium, no one technology, no one method, strategy, or assistive technology, will get you through life. Text-challenged or not, we all might choose different ways to access messages and emails and books depending on whether we are (a) in our office, (b) walking down the street, (c) sitting in a classroom, (d) flying across the Atlantic, (e) lying in bed, or (f) driving down the road. Likewise we will access music differently, video differently, perhaps a dictionary differently. You'll also likely use your phone differently. These are the "environment" issues in the TEST (Task, Environment, Skills, Tools) arrangement of Joy Zabala's SETT protocol. And they matter. They matter a great deal.

Sync understands this. It is a system crafted to the needs of its unique environment, and yet it still flexes according to the users skills and tool knowledge. It can adapt to any bluetooth phone. You can use various combinations of voice, buttons on the steering wheel, or buttons on the radio itself (perhaps with the assistance of the passenger riding shotgun). It is not "single voice" dependent - accepting voices as they come. It allows you to use the media player of your choice, or just a flash drive - it is not "format dependent" like an iPod or most AT hardware.

Is it perfect? Of course not. They really, really need to get the "read text message" system working with every phone on every network - especially Blackberrys (this, unfortunately, seems way too typical of Microsoft). They have one of the most confusing, ridiculous websites I've ever seen. But, this is a software based system, and updates have come and will come, so the features and functions will only improve.

Is this a reason to run out and buy a new car? No, of course not. But it is a reason to look at one car choice over another. Ford and Microsoft have assembled communications technology in a way which can really help people function - all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. It is a model for the future, and a lesson in media flexibility.

- Ira Socol

Sync is a very low cost option on all US and Canadian Ford models. I wouldn't buy the GPS option, you can get voice enabled GPS much cheaper than Ford offers it. The basic Sync is all you need.

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