Friday, April 7, 2017

"Why All Your Gadgets Want You to Talk to Them"

From New York Magazine's Select/all:
Unveiled last week, Samsung’s new Galaxy S8 has many new features its top-of-the-line competitors don’t: bezel-free screen, Bluetooth 5.0, an OLED screen that looks better than 95 percent of TVs available on the market. But it also has something they all do: a voice assistant.

Meet Bixby, Samsung’s new voice assistant (or, as they’re technically known, intelligent personal assistant). Previous Samsung phones used S Voice, a voice assistant that was little loved and annoying to use (and, indeed, was outclassed by Google itself toward the end of its life cycle).

Bixby is Samsung’s attempt to start fresh. It will, ostensibly, one day let you do anything with voice you can do with touch (right now, that’s limited to ten or so Android apps and some basic phone functions). Bixby also has visual search, which lets you point your phone’s camera at something and get information about it, whether that’s where to buy a dress or information about the Flatiron Building; Bixby will also perform “passive” artificial intelligence, using what it knows about your schedule and location to provide information before you even ask for it. (Is traffic going to suck on the route to pick kids up from school? Bixby will let you know.) And you can use Bixby to control various smart objects in your home, whether that’s dimming the lights before movie night, or gradually waking the house up by turning on your coffee maker and your favorite radio station.

But I wonder about Bixby. Google Assistant promised to be a game changer, but I’ve been using a Pixel XL for half a year now, and use it mainly to set timers and alarm clocks. I’ve used it occasionally to send texts (something I’d imagine I’d use a lot more if I drove on any regular basis), but for the most part, Google Assistant goes unused and unspoken to.

Siri was a minor sensation when it first launched on phones — I eagerly upgraded my own iPhone in 2012 because I was moving to L.A., and figured being able to ask for directions or send a text on the go would be helpful while driving. But Siri was less than advertised, so text messages were hilariously garbled, and map directions (especially via the still-buggy Apple Maps) were often less helpful than just relying on the fact that the highways always sucked and side streets were the way to go anywhere, so Siri quickly became another voice assistant I just stopped talking to.

But in the six years since voice assistants have hit the scene, from Siri to Bixby, they’ve stopped really being about your smartphone. (And, in the case of Amazon’s Echo, stopped being about your phone at all.) Oh, sure, they’re all still information devices — any of the options listed above will tell you what time the Cubs play the Cardinals today, or how the weather is going to look for today or tomorrow, or when the next showing of The Boss Baby will play at the local multiplex.

But the sense I get talking to various people in industry is that the true promise for tech companies and voice assistants isn’t in being a walking, talking information directory. Instead, it’s about the industry’s strong belief that the smart home, despite slow adoption rates, is coming — and that the smart home is going to need a voice operating system, one that can understand and respond primarily via voice commands. Ask anyone who uses an Echo or Google Home on a regular basis — having to go back to pulling your phone out of your pocket just to check the weather can suddenly feel like a chore....MORE