Let’s talk. No, not with each other. Let’s talk with the TV, phone, tablet, or personal computer in front of us. And let’s have them talk back, understanding the meaning and context of what we say to them. Remember Hal from “2001: A Space Odyssey?” Hal is here.
The film vision for Hal from Stanley Kubrick’s epic movie gave us a computer with a thinking “brain” that had a sense of humor and could quickly process any request. This is the point we have reached today and there are a number of technology companies large and small who are blazing new trails in this field.
The most obvious current example is Apple’s Siri, the voice recognition software that allows iPhone and iPad users to vocally ask questions and order actions. At today’s Macworld conference in San Francisco, Joe Kissell (senior editor of Tidbits), led a session on Siri that neatly captured the evolution of this ground-breaking product.
As Kissell pointed out, Apple has been gradually updating Siri’s features and capabilities without much fanfare. A recent iOS update just a few days ago now lets Siri users order movie tickets on Fandango, for example. Other Siri improvements quietly made by the company over the past few months include expanded country and language support (China, Korea and Spain have been added among others), the ability to send Tweets and Facebook wall posts, and giving users the option of setting the timer for seconds along with minutes for those who really need to measure their lives down to the smallest detail.
But like a child now entering kindergarten, Siri still has some growing up to do. Kissell gave the Macworld audience a live demonstration where Siri could not multiply “six times nine” or correctly answer the age-old question “what’s sticky and brown?” (The correct answer is a stick, of course.)
Some of Siri’s competitors such as Google's Voice Search, Evi, and VoiceAnswer handled these tests better when demonstrated today by Kissell. Evi in particular was impressively faster than Siri and the female voice was far less robotic. But the drawback for most Siri challengers is that they can only operate in relative isolation, without the ability to connect with a user’s iPhone contacts, calendar or apps. This is where Apple has cornered the market and they don’t intend to give it up.
Apple knows that to stay ahead of the competition, they have to make Siri more robust in its ability to understand and act on user commands. That’s probably why just a few days ago the company posted an intriguing job opening for a Siri Writer/Editor. Reading the job description tells one plenty about where Apple hopes to take their language processing product.
The use of voice command technology for other devices is leading to some interesting new developments, especially in the TV field. At the huge CES (Consumer Electronics Show) gathering in Las Vegas earlier this month, Samsung unveiled a voice interaction technology for its new-model smart TV that lets users pose questions and get information displayed. Basic queries like “any recommendations for tonight?” or “which documentary films are showing today?” were showcased by the consumer product giant.
But perhaps the real future of this technology could be found in a hotel suite far off the exhibit floor, where a small company called Jinni was quietly previewing their voice recognition product that goes way beyond what Samsung was showing. The Jinni team led by Yosi Glick, Jinni’s CEO, has built a platform that allows for a much more finely nuanced search. Jinni’s software can handle directions like “show me something romantic that I can watch with my date tonight.” This requires the technology to grasp a lot: what’s romantic, what you like to see, what’s suitable for a date, and what’s actually showing tonight. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Just a few days after CES, Jinni announced that a couple of big players (Time Warner Cable and Walmart’s Vudu) had signed on to use their TV search tools. Glick’s big challenge is to convince the large TV makers that his software is the “next dimension” which consumers want, much as phone users are increasingly embracing Siri and other voice recognition technologies today. If he can do that, Jinni, like Apple, may well follow a yellow brick road paved with real gold.