Speaking Up About Voice Control
By Rico Cruz - on 16 Oct 2011, 9:58pm


Before anything else, please watch the short video clip above.

Done? OK, good. Do you recognize it? It’s one of the most famous scenes in science fiction cinema, from the movie 2011: A Space Odyssey. It shows HAL, the spaceship’s computer, talking with one of the ship’s crew, Dave Bowman. The idea of talking with computers has been a staple of science fiction, even before “2001” came out in 1968, and has continued to be so up to the present day. During that time, science fact has slowly but surely caught up with science fiction, and today we have devices that are very close to that dream. Now I’m not just talking about Google voice search, or voice control for iPods, and high-end cars stereos. Those are just gimmicks that nobody really uses. I mean actual practical speech recognition technology.

 Siri on the iPhone 4S

Science fiction writers always imagined talking computers as huge systems that controlled entire spaceships. The talking computers of today fit in your pocket. It is apparently in the mobile space that voice control technology is looking to take off. When Apple launched the iPhone 4S earlier this month, they also unveiled a very nifty application called “Siri”, which understands plain English commands. For example, if you say “text my wife that I’ll be late by 30 minutes”, Siri will send a text message to the contact in your phone tagged as “Wife” that says “I’ll be late by 30 minutes.” It’s much more natural and intuitive than previous voice control applications that could only understand “radio on”, or “call Jenny”. In fact, in one demonstration video, the user said “help me Siri, I’m drunk.” to which Siri responded with a list of cabs that were close by.

Voice control is more the personification of a machine rather than another form of input.

Many critics of Apple have pointed out however, that Siri is not the first voice control application for smartphones. As early as 2008, a company called Vlingo had already released a similar application, and even ported it to Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone 7 operating systems. Practically speaking, Vlingo does pretty much everything that Siri does. It also understands plain English, just like Siri. What makes the difference though, is the fact that Siri responds in plain English as well. I think that this is the crux of effective voice control software – feedback. For example, if you ask Siri “what’s the weather like in New York?” it will respond with “not too chilly, around 19 degrees”, then display the weather forecast for the week. When you say “send Bob a text message”, it will respond with “OK, what would you like it to say?” Telling your computer what to do is pretty neat, but talking with your computer feels and sounds more like the future we imagine. Siri is kind of like having someone operate your phone for you, rather than you issuing commands and having device or computer immediately execute it. Without any feedback. Apple's engineers have apparently shown us that voice control is not simply another way of pressing a button, it is the machine entering the realm of human language itself, and becoming personified. Since it has only recently come out, it remains to be seen if Siri becomes the first application of voice control that people will actually use, but from what we can see and more importantly, hear, it is the biggest step in the right direction.

Rico Cruz

Rico Cruz / Staff Writer

Rico is the newest member of the HardwareZone team, having joined in June 2011, lured by his love of all things technology. He has been an avid follower of technology news since his high school days and is therefore no stranger to technology trends, past and present.