The Inquirer-Home

Virtual assistants like Siri, S Voice and Google Now are futile

Column People won’t get on board with voice-activated software
Fri May 16 2014, 12:00

Lee Bell column portrait THE FIRST TIME I came into contact with a mobile virtual assistant was with Siri when I bought an iPhone 4S just over two years ago, which at that time was one of Apple's latest software 'innovations' in its flagship smartphone.

It was not reason I opted for the iPhone over any other device, but I was intrigued to try it out and see if it would really change how I would use my phone, like Apple's adverts promised.

Of course, Siri wasn't the first time anyone had seen voice activation. My earliest memories of voice-activated technology was probably via a certain Saturday morning cartoon. It was "Go-go-gadget [insert accessory of choice here]", for those that remember Inspector Gadget. For others, the first indication that voice activation could be a facet of our future stretch back to the early '80s and Knightrider, and I'm sure for some it goes back further still in other forms of popular culture.

But it's not until recent years that technology companies have made a serious effort at voice activation to bring its use to the mainstream, into devices the average Joe would use on a daily basis.

Despite the attempts by huge vendors that have either bought or partnered with companies that specialise in voice recognised technology - for example Apple buying Siri, which was acquired by the firm in 2010, or Samsung joining forces with Nuance to power its S Voice software - I am still very reluctant to place my trust in the technology, or anywhere near it for that matter.

Last week, I visited Nuance, the firm behind Samsung's S Voice software at its headquarters in Marlow.

Nuance thinks that the lack of mainstream adoption of virtual assistants like Siri is down to users just needing a bit of time to get used to using the technology.

Seb Reeve, the firm's EMEA director of product management, compared the arrival of voice activation on mobile devices to the arrival of the smartphone.

"The interesting thing is how fast consumer expectation does change - we think we don't change as fast as we do. Look at behaviour and like with young kids - the way they interact with that technology and it's really intriguing as a fly on the wall to watch them," he said.

"Their trust engagement of the thing is 'it's an entity; it's a person', so Siri my daughter once described as having a really 'helpful' personality - which is just a thing to me, and to most of us who didn't grow up with [it]."

Reeve claims that the lack of people not taking to virtual assistants right away will change quickly as people get used to it.

"It's not just generational because we've only had the iPhone seven years; that's the blink of an eye to have a smartphone which we can't live without."

For me, even if people do get used to it, it's just not ready for the market. The reason the iPhone shot to fame in such a short time is that the idea was completely new to the mass market, it was the first touchscreen phone that actually worked out of the box and, above all else, it was intuitive and attractive.

I think it'll either be a very long time before voice technoloy will actually make our lives easier, like it promises, or it won't ever feel natural enough for users to warm to it. Unless it becomes so advanced that it can function as well as human being - the movie Her being a good example - then it'll always be just another novelty, in my opinion. Why would anyone in their right mind go to the trouble of taking a risk with voice software - hoping that it 'might' understand what they are saying and call the right Sarah, for instance, or send a message to a partner instead of parents - which could be dangerous - when they can do it all much more quickly and easily with their fingers?

This morning for instance, I accidently activated Siri on my iPhone while putting it in my pocket. Without muttering a word, it thought I had told it to call my friend Camilla. I hadn't. And despite shouting "no", "stop" and many other words that I can't write without probably offending someone, Siri was hell-bent on doing the exact opposite of what I wanted it to do.

Call me old-fashioned, but this is exactly the reason why I don't like voice activated software, because to me it's all the same - S Voice, Siri, Google Now. I don't care what anyone says, they just don't work flawlessly. They don't do what you want them to first time every time and even if they do, it's far less of a hassle to do it via the device's touchscreen. And there's always the chance you'll look like a fool talking to an inanimate object in public, and thus getting disgruntled and frustrated while onlookers become anxious about being in your company. I've never had a good experience with voice activated software, hence I don't bother with it, and I don't think I am the only one.

I think the problems I've experienced extend to the wider consumer market. If I don't use it, and my friends hate using it, then I'm pretty sure that most people feel the same. µ  


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