Voice-Enabled Interactions for Mobile

While watching television recently I came across two favorite programs from my youth.  One was the cartoon The Jetsons.  I really enjoyed the space-age technology and futuristic designs.  The other was Star Trek (the original series).  The idea of travelling around at warp speed and ‘beaming’ from one point to another was always fascinating to me.  I realized that these advanced civilizations had at least one thing in common: they talked to their computers.  No bulky keyboards, no awkward mice, no fancy trackballs, just good old-fashioned speech.  And their computers not only listened, but they talked back, usually with good results.

Using speech to interact with your computer hasn’t really caught on.  Other than converting speech to text, there are not too many business applications where you talk to your PC.  With mobile technology, many of us have voice-dialed a name in our address book but not much else.  And then Siri comes along.

Launched as part of Apple’s iPhone 4S, Siri not only searches for information but can execute commands like adding calendar entries and reminders as well as providing entertaining responses to questions.  Siri has become very popular, with one report finding that almost 90% of iPhone 4S owners use Siri.

The popularity of Siri has given rise to a number of competing products.  Google Android’s version 4.1 contains Voice Actions.  Samsung has introduced S Voice.  Microsoft launched TellMe for Windows Phone.  Evi works on both Android and iOS.  Nuance, a leader in speech processing technology, has announced a product called Nina which is an SDK targeting large enterprises who are implementing mobile customer service apps.  Even IBM’s Jeopardy-winning Watson is getting into the act with Watson 2.0 which is being designed for smartphones and tablets.  Siri has sparked new interests in the mobile virtual assistant arena.

In many ways, it makes more sense for voice interaction with smartphones versus PCs.  It can be much faster to speak what you want versus navigating through multiple menus on a mobile device.  Other smartphone features like geolocation (GPS), sensors, etc. can be leveraged to provide additional, more intelligent capabilities.  While it’s not totally hands-free, it can definitely reduce the number of keystrokes.  It’s also a more natural way of communicating.

There are some challenges with this approach.  Although speech recognition has come a long way, there is still much room for improvement.  One anecdotal study saw Siri fail one-third of the time.  In environments with high ambient noise levels, even a solid noise-cancelling microphone may not work well enough.  There are also people whose speech may be difficult to understand or those who don’t have the ability to speak.  Even in Star Trek the captain gave orders to the navigator, not a computer (remember the disaster with M5 in the episode “The Ultimate Computer”).

I think that voice-based computer interactions will continue to evolve and improve.  The use of a keyboard and mouse has made humans adapt to the way computers interact.  The real innovation comes when computers adapt to the way humans interact.  While voice services for human-to-human are diminishing, voice-based interactions from human-to-smartphone are on the rise.  Looks like one day instead of asking Scotty to beam us up, we can just ask the Enterprise to do it.

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2 Comments on “Voice-Enabled Interactions for Mobile”

  1. There is no simpler user interface than simply saying what you want. However, why restrict that functionality to a single manufacturer? Check out Spoken Keywords on the #250 platform by Mobile Direct Response.

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