I always loved this scene from Star Trek when Scotty tries to talk to a 1980s computer. Even as a kid I wondered how we’d get there. You see, great technology doesn’t just spring forth, it evolves. The cotton gin was arguably one of the most important inventions of the industrial revolution, but it took a dozen arcane and seemingly minor improvements to take it to a place where it had the impact that it did. Left unmodified it wouldn’t have been forgotten and the machine we ended up with could never have been invented in isolation.
Even today, voice recognition is poor enough that I’ve often wondered how we it would ever enter every day use. Plus, I couldn’t see us all sitting there in an office, or on a bus, or at the coffee shop talking to our computers. It’s noisy and you look really silly, just like when you use a bluetooth headset.
For voice recognition it’s got to solve a specific problem, not just be a fun demo and/or neat concept. Mice solved the issue that GUIs had too many function combinations for a person to remember (hey WordPerfect ALT+SHIFT+F8 I’m looking at you). The touch screen solved the problem of a lack of a keyboard. Which problem is voice recognition 1.0 solve first?
Recently I had two experiences that I think shows how this evolution will happen.
I had a the fortune to get some free upgrades and the fancy cars I rented had bluetooth phone links, which is easier than using a headset. The Volvo allowed me to voice dial using Siri, whereas the Volkswagen made me use the car’s built-in voice system. Oscar Mike Foxtrot: going from Siri to Volkswagen was excruciating. In my opinion, Siri is now easier to use than dialing with hands. Despite the inevitable typos it’s still quicker to have a couple of goes at dialing than fiddling around with a dial pad or list of text messages.
A few days later I was browsing the news over breakfast when I came across an article I wanted to tweet with a comment. Doing this with one of my kids on my lap and a cup of espresso in my hand was really hard. I would have loved to have spoken the commentary out loud and felt the urge to use Siri once again. That’s a killer sign the app is working. I didn’t do so only because I was on my MacBook and not on my iPhone but I would have if I could have.
Siri still needs a lot of work, especially if you don’t speak American (I’m from the UK), but it’s clearly now usable enough for folks like Apple to spend millions on improving it, and for others to spend even more making their own versions. We’re on our way.