Voice controlled computers and electronics have always been a staple science fiction, flaunting with the idea that we could simply issue commands to our silicone based underlings and have them do our bidding. Even though technology has come an incredibly long way in the past couple decades understanding natural language is still a challenge that remains unconquered. Modern day speech recognition systems often rely on key words in order to perform the required commands, usually forcing the user to use unnatural language in order to get what they want. Apple’s latest innovation, Siri, seems to be a step forward in this regard and could potentially signal in a shift in the way people use their smartphones and other devices.
On the surface Siri appears to understand quite a bit of natural language, being able to understand that a single task can be said in several different ways. Siri also appears to have a basic conversational engine in it as well so that it can interpret commands in the context of what you’ve said to it before. The scope of what Siri can do however is quite limited but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as being able to nail a handful of actions from natural language is still leaps and bounds above what other voice recognition systems are currently capable of.
Siri also has a sense of humour, often replying to out of left field questions with little quips or amusing shut downs. I was however disappointed with the response for a classic nerd line of “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” which recieved the following response:
This screen shot also shows that Siri’s speech recognition isn’t always 100% either, especially when it’s trying to guess what you were saying.
Many are quick to draw the comparison between Android’s voice command system and apps available on the platform like Vlingo. The big difference there though is that these services are much more like search engines than Siri, performing the required actions only if you utter the commands and key words in the right order. That’s the way nearly all voice operated systems have worked in the past (like those automated call centres that everyone hates) and are usually the reason why most people are disappointed in them. Siri has the one up here as people are being encouraged to speak to it in a natural way, rather than changing the way they speak in order to be able to use it.
For all the good that Siri is capable of accomplishing it’s still at it’s heart a voice recognition system and with that comes some severe limitations. Ambient noise, including others talking around you, will confuse Siri completely making it unusable unless you’re in relatively quite area. I’m not just saying this as a general thing either, friends with Siri have mentioned this as one of its short comings. Of course this isn’t unique to Siri and is unlikely to be a problem that can be overcome by technology alone (unless you could speak to Siri via a brain implant, say).
Like many other voice recognition systems Siri is geared more toward the accent of the country it was developed in, I.E. American. This isn’t just limited to the different spellings between say the Queen’s English and American English but also for the inflections and nuances that different accents introduce. Siri will also fall in a crying heap if the pronunciation and spelling are different as well, again limiting its usefulness. This is a problem that can and has been overcome in the past by other speech recognition systems and I would expect that with additional languages for Siri already on the way that these kinds of problems will eventually be solved.
A fun little fact that I came across in my research for this post was that Apple still considered Siri to be a beta product (right at the bottom, in small text that’s easy to miss). That’s unusual for Apple as they’re not one to release a product unfinished, even if that comes at the cost of features not making it in. In a global sense Siri really is still beta with some of her services, like Yelp and location based stuff, not being available to people outside of the USA (like the above screenshot shows). Apple is of course working to make them all available but it’s quite unusual for them to do something in this fashion.
So is Siri the next step in user interfaces? I don’t think so. It’s a great step forward for sure and there will be people who make heavy use of it in their daily activities. However once the novelty wears off and the witty responses run out I don’t see a compelling reason for people to continue using Siri. The lack of a developer API as well (and no mention of whether one will be available) means that the services that can be hooked into Siri are limited to those that Apple will develop, meaning some really useful services might never be integrated forcing users to go back to native apps. Depending on how many services are excluded people may just find it easier to not use Siri at all, opting for the already (usually quite good) native app experience. I could be proven wrong on this, especially with technology like Watson on the horizon, but for now Siri’s more of a curiosity than anything else.
The technology blogosphere has been rampant with speculation about what the next iPhone would be for the last couple months, as it usually is in the ramp up to Apple’s yearly iPhone event. The big question on everyone’s lips has been whether we’d see an iPhone 5 (a generational leap) or something more like a 4S (an incremental improvement on last year’s model). Mere hours ago Apple announced the latest addition to its smart phone line up: the iPhone 4S. Like the 3GS was to the 3G the iPhone 4S is definitely a step up from its predecessor but it retains the same look and feel, leaving the next evolution in the iPhone space to come next year.
If you compared the 4 and the 4S side by side you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between them, since both of them sport the same screen. The difference you’d be able to pick up on is the redesigned antenna which has been done to avoid another antennagate fiasco. The major differences are on the inside with the iPhone 4S sporting a new dual-core A5 processor, 8 megapixel camera capable of 1080p video, and a combined quadband GSM and CDMA radio. Spec wise the iPhone 4S is a definite leap up from the 4, but how does it compare to other handsets that are already available?
Siri is a personal digital assistant which is based around interpreting natural language. At it’s heart Siri is a voice command and dictation engine, being able to translate human speech into actions on the iPhone 4S. From the demos I’ve seen on the site it’s capabilities are quite high and varied, being able to do rudimentary things like setting appointments to searching around you for restaurants and sorting them by rating. Unlike other features which have been reto-fitted onto the previous generation Siri will not be making an appearance on anything less than the iPhone 4S thanks to the intensive processing requirements. It’s definitely an impressive feature, but I’m sceptical as to whether this will be the killer app to drive people to upgrade.
Now I was doubtful of how good the voice recognition could really be, I mean if YouTube’s transcribe audio to captions service is anything to go by voice recognition done right is still in the realms of black magic and sorcery. Still there are reports that it works exactly as advertised so Apple might have been able to get it right enough that it passes as usable. The utility of talking into your phone to get it to do something remains in question however as whilst voice commands are always a neat feature to show off for a bit I’ve never met anyone who’s used them consistently. My wife does her darnedest to use the voice command whenever she can but 9 times out of 10 she wastes more time getting it to do the right thing than she would have otherwise. Siri’s voice recognition might be the first step towards making this work, but I’ll believe it when you can use it when in a moving car or when someone else is talking in the room.
Will I be swapping out my S2 for an iPhone 4s? Nope, there’s just nothing compelling enough for me to make the switch although I could see myself being talked into upgrading the wife’s aging 3GS for this newer model. In fact I’d say 3GS and below owners would be the only ones with a truly compelling reason to upgrade unless the idea of talking at your phone is just too good to pass up. So overall I’d say my impression of the 4S is mixed, but that’s really no different from my usual reaction to Apple product launches.