Siri Inspires Technology's Aural Evolution

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It hasn’t been long since iPhone 4S day but already I find myself wishing that Siri, Apple’s all-hearing personal assistant, might be magicked somehow into the majority of my other household devices and appliances as well. While Apple’s genial Genie is likely to stay locked-up inside its lamp for the time being, we’re beginning to see evidence that when rubbed the right way it has enough power to cast its voice recognition spells upon my alarm clock, television and even my motor car.
Apple’s reinvention of voice recognition has invigorated a technology that for many consumers had become stale and gimmicky, notorious for its unreliability. However, the iPhone 4S implementation of Siri has finally turned VR into something genuinely useful and a lot of fun, something that (mostly) just works.
Sure, many are frustrated with the seemingly simple stuff that Siri can’t do quite yet: turning on or off Bluetooth and Wifi would surely be quick and easy wins, and UK users can’t wait for the maps, shops and services to be properly integrated.
Nevertheless, setting reminders, leaving quick notes and sending an ‘I’ll be home late’ text message are all easily achieved, as are many other basic tasks.
Sirious Conversation
What differentiates Siri from its competitors is that, in a stroke of PR genius so obvious you wonder how nobody else managed it, Apple has succeeded in giving a handset a character with a sense of humour, hiding easter eggs within the app that (for the first few weeks anyway) are a hit at the pub with non-Siri owning friends.
Fundamentally, the Siri experience is more akin to conversation than to bland command-response exchanges experienced in other attempts at VR. I await with interest to see how future updates to the Siri vocabulary are announced and are received: perhaps Siri could simply announce its own new features?
Just how easily this technology has integrated into my life became apparent when I received a Revo AXiS internet/DAB radio alarm clock to try out last week. There’s no denying that the AXiS is a well-crafted piece of kit; it includes an iPhone dock, integrated Last.fm app and an excellent colour touchscreen interface. Only a few weeks ago I’d probably have been frothing at the seams at this nifty bit of bedside table nirvana; however, right now I must confess that I find it somewhat lacking.
You see, a touchscreen is now no longer enough to get me excited: I need to be able to talk to my tech and for it to talk back to me, preferably doing what I’ve told it.
“Hello alarm clock. Wake me up at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning, please. What? A touchscreen interface? How quaint.”
Once again, Apple’s iPhone has changed everything, as a minimum my sense of expectation in other devices.
So, how likely is it that my alarm clock, and by extension my other household devices requiring more than an on-off interaction, will all also grow ears and start answering back? It’s clearly a matter of when, not if, right?
Smartphone as a Universal Remote Control
Well, there may be an intermediate or altogether alternative route in our home technology’s aural evolution, one in which our smartphones play an integral role: the VR Gateway.
As is increasingly evident, our smartphones are becoming mediators for communication and interaction with other connected devices and services. It’s easiest to think of them as a universal remote control. Take a television for example: right now I can change channels on my Sony Bravia TV by using either a cumbersome hundred-buttoned slab of Sony plastic or instead with simple swipy gestures and an actual-ish keyboard via a free Sony app on my iOS devices. Similarly, the Sky+ app on my iPhone also allows for recording of programmes on Sky’s PVR without going anywhere near its rather more ergonomic remote control.
Internet of Things
As we approach an age where the much-mooted Internet of Things actually becomes an actual thing, everything worth connecting will eventually get connected. But connected to what, and – more importantly – interfacing with whom?
It doesn’t necessarily follow that you and I will interface with these connected devices directly, and it is here where our smartphones are perfectly placed to act as a gateway: rather than speaking directly into my telly, I talk to my gateway device (e.g., Siri on my smartphone) that does the clever stuff for me (the voice recognition, offloading any difficult translations to the cloud as necessary) and sends device-specific commands my TV.
Of course, changing channels or turning up the volume isn’t (or certainly shouldn’t be) a big deal on a remote control. But now that many of the TVs on the high street are internet-connected by default, and as we become increasingly demanding of them, the prospect of voice control begins to look more appealing.
“Can you record Eastenders on BBC1 for me tonight?”, “Can you record and series link Family Guy on E4 later?”, “Don’t let my kids watch anything featuring scenes of nudity. Or Jeremy Clarkson”.
What’s more, VR (voice recognition) isn’t just a flippant convenience aid for the lazy: it offers huge usability benefits for users with a wide range of accessibility challenges, and it enables all of us to get more from our technology where previously cumbersome interfaces may have posed a barrier. As the VR itself is managed within the gateway device there’s altogether less work required on the part of hardware manufacturers to make their devices voice command ready.
Siri Proxy
In fact, much of the technology needed to enable us to talk to, converse with and command the devices around us is, as we’ve seen with Siri, already here in our smartphones – over the last couple of weeks some Siri hackers have posted videos on YouTube showing feats from controlling an television to starting a car engine.
However, it is the last-leg that may pose the most significant challenge to broader and faster adoption of this exciting technology, that of turning enthusiasts’ hacks into manufacturer supported features. The technology industr y can be very poor when it comes to deciding upon industry standards, particularly when there are big players involved and the sniff of large revenues to expoit. The fast-moving hacker/modder communities have been quick to embrace Siri, but any attempts to wrestle too much control back could ultimately backfire.
Nevertheless, I’m remaining very hopeful that I’ll be reviewing some voice-activated hardware/app combos over the coming months.
“Hello new alarm clock, set my alarm for 7am please. But first, tell me a story. Go on…”
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