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Life in a Post-Siri World

By Rob Enderle TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
Nov 14, 2011 5:00 AM PT

The current generation of smartphones is a bit of a kludge. They require a lot of text entry, but most don't have keyboards. As a result, they generally suck at it. Siri, Apple's new voice-command technology, points the way to a future that is more like the past, where phones are good at what phones have always been good at -- voice -- and typing may become, at least on smartphones, a thing of the past.

Life in a Post-Siri World

While voice command has been around since the early days of PCs, it has never really taken off; even disabled people often use something they can hold in their mouths rather than using voice command.

But people are using Apple's Siri. Much like how Apple's implementation of touch changed us from folks who prefer flip phones to those who prefer screen phones, this is likely to result in design changes that we haven't imagined yet. And I don't think this will stop at phones. Let's explore a world of Siri devices.

My product of the week this week is an Xbox game that could revolutionize what you do with a game system, and it also has a woman's name: Leela.

The Siri Phone

The iPhone, from which most phone designs now sprout, was based on the concept of a touchscreen. The virtual keyboard and the layout of the screen are optimized for a blend of content consumption and text creation. It isn't really optimized for voice and it is rather uncomfortable compared to flip phones that were more about voice communications, like the original iconic Motorola Razr which defined the prior generation.

Switching from a keyboard to voice eventually as the primary way to interface with a phone should change the phone's design over time materially. While you'll still want to see the screen in many cases because the Web content you are viewing is designed to be consumed that way, your navigation would switch from a combination of text and swipe to a combination of voice and swipe.

This would put emphasis on the accuracy and placement of the microphone, or on an external headset, over the text capabilities of the device. It would likely enable future use cases in which the phone isn't held at all. Once you get rid of the need to type text, you likely can get rid of the need to touch the screen at all for most navigation tasks, eventually calling up the name of the application or saying "zoom in" or "zoom out" where you used to use the finger pinch. Initially, though, I expect users will find it harder to lose this capability.

Now voice recognition -- and the follow-on technology, voice-to-text -- works best with isolation microphones, which makes the wireless headset an increasing requirement for a good experience. So pulling this all together, the most obvious design would be one that you wear like a watch or armband, with the display either inside your arm (better while driving), or outside your arm (closer to a watch), coupled with a dedicated headphone. Ideally the device would charge wirelessly, since that has been an historic usability problem for the small group of wrist-mounted PDAs that have never done well in market.

After this, a display that could be built into glasses would be the natural evolution after folks realized they didn't need to actually swipe the display anymore. This would likely be coupled to a modular design separating the major components wirelessly to keep the weight and powerful radio away from your head.

However, even longer-term, Siri is another step to alter technology so that it deals with people more naturally, and speech is a far more natural way for people to communicate than text was. I expect this could go further.

Siri Takes Over the World

Voice command can clearly move beyond phones, and some car companies have been messing around with it for years, for the most part with limited success and use. However, Siri, because it is being widely used by new iPhone buyers, is becoming much more widely used, and that is making the technology much more acceptable in a number of areas. You can imagine home alarm systems that could respond to spoken calls for help or commands like "call the police," "call the fire department," or in my wife's case, "call my mother." Yes, that is a viable alternative for some.

In cars, you already have commands for navigation and entertainment, but you likely could remove most of the switches. Rather than hunting for a way to turn on the headlights or searching for a particular function, just being able to speak what you want would, particularly in rental cars, be a welcome solution.

By the way, if you ever want a real challenge, rent a French car. I swear, they are expert at creating controls that are anything but obvious. Of course, given how the French are about language, it will be my luck if French cars only understand French. What is "unlock doors" in French, again?

In elevators, you speak the location -- "I want to go to women's clothes," for instance -- and wouldn't need to know the floor number. In hotels you could speak your name to get to the right floor. Of course with groups it could be a bit crazy, with several folks trying to talk at once. For stoves you'd just say what you wanted to cook and it would set for that food; for stereos, the name of the song, playlist, station or type of music; and TVs would find shows. And this is likely just the start.

Wrapping Up: Siri the Problem

I can imagine a coming problem, and that is annoying noise. Right now folks texting are pretty quiet -- annoying, but quietly so. Folks talking on their phones are bad enough, but talking to everything could get really annoying really fast. Granted, there are people who talk to everything now, but typically we lock those folks up, and now they'd likely be the ones who most quickly adapted to this interface -- though having a long conversation with your stove would still probably get you committed.

Kids will have an unusual opportunity to annoy adults by confusing the voice-enabled devices while you are giving critical commands, and I can imagine two people standing close on a subway having phone command wars as both phones tried to respond to both users at once. This kind of assures that tight voice recognition will be a requirement as well as a method to speak to the devices very quietly. Now imagine what those now super sensitive microphones will pick up. I'm thinking this is a technology that could scare the hell out of politicians.

In any case, I think Siri is the beginning of a major change that probably will take decades to play out. But I expect that before long we'll be talking to a lot of devices, and it won't be long after that they'll be talking to us. In short, we'll all be crazy people who talk regularly to technology, and our kids will eventually wonder why the trees don't talk back. Isn't technical advancement grand?

Product of the Week: Deepak Chopra's 'Leela'

Product of the Week

Games are a bit of an addiction to me, and typically these things aren't that great for your mind or body. A while back I picked up a Steelcase Walkstation, which is basically a treadmill desk, and started working on my gut while gaming. Then I discovered "Dance Revolution" and Kinect on Xbox, and that was fun until my niece Karin slam dunked me. "Dance Revolution 2" is even better, but these all work on my body, and there is a belief that properly designed games can also improve the mind.

Leela
"Leela"

Well, Deepak Copra's "Leela" is designed to improve the mind, bring peace to the body, and nurture the sole. This is more meditative than competitive, and it is truly a different kind of game.

Granted, while messing with this game you are likely to wonder if you shouldn't have gotten stoned first. A lot of this new age kind of medicine should be taken with a grain of salt, but teaching you how to breath better and to be more meditative (calmer) should have health benefits.

In any case I like the idea of folks creating games that are designed to make you healthier; as a result, Deepak Chopra's "Leela" is my product of the week. However, given I haven't had it long, I can't guarantee it won't eventually turn you into a pod person.


Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.


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