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Obey Voice You Horrible Little Thing

Anyone remember Siri?


Siri was a voice-activated “personal assistant” for iOS, made by an independent developer.  It was last year, I think.  It was the beginnings of something very interesting.  Voice-driven search agent.  “Siri, call me a cab,” you’d say, and it’d do it.  “Siri, book me a table at my favourite restaurant,” you’d say, and if it had that information and web service details, it would.  Like I say, the beginnings.  It might have wound itself deeper into iOS itself, as well as broading its search and action agency.

And then Apple bought it, a year ago, and it went away.

I bought myself a little bluetooth earpiece, a Jawbone Shadowbox, to make it easier for me to listen to podcasts.  So today I’m sitting at my work table in the back garden, and decide that I want to send a voice memo to someone while I’m working.  I hold down the button on my Shadowbox that activates voice control on the phone, and say “voice memo.”

It redials my last-used number.

I try again.  It dials into my phone provider’s voicemail service.


The hell with it, I think, and, while voice control’s on, I tell it to play a Grouper album I have on the phone.

Terrifyingly, it dials the mobile phone of an executive at 20th Century Fox.

I decided that this was annoying.  And then I thought, wait, Apple bought Siri a bloody year ago.  Siri was apparently capable of telling me the weather in New York City and booking me a ticket to go and see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  But the bloody phone voice control tries to wake up a movie studio VP at 530 when I ask it to play a record.

All of which are beyond trivial, as problems go.  I can, of course, just pick up the phone and make it do what I want.  But if you’re going to put voice control on there, and allow third-party devices to access it, isn’t there an onus on you to make it a bit more useful?  Especially when you’ve had Siri in-house for a year?  Maybe this is what’s coming with iPhone 5.  I’ve read that Android voice control is better.

But – at least in my head – there’s a broader point.  People are beginning to come to terms with the idea of the phone screen as ghost box, as viewer and mediator of the invisible world of informational connection and flow.  Augmented Reality is helping that along, in certain quarters.  I am, however, amused by the idea that Apple, whose general design policies seem mostly informed by Star Trek: The Next Generation (and note how the design of the new Star Trek film evoked nothing so much as an Apple Store with added LEDs and lens flare), let something as obviously Eighties-science-fiction as voice interface get away from them.  Which is why I nodded sagely, as is my wont, when they bought Siri.

(Also amused by the idea that, in an era of voice interface, New Aesthetic would become No Aesthetic overnight.  Or, at least, would have to somehow become audial.  Would audio glitch even be possible in voice interface?  Maybe activation pings would become the basis for next-gen chiptunes.)

Noise-cancelling technologies make voice interface more feasible by the day.  If you already have a voice control system, why not tie it deeper into your OS, rather than keep it as a part-functional appendage?  Right now, it’s sort of a vestigial tail on iOS.  And, while I don’t want to seem entitled or pushy – Apple moves slow with iPhone, and, hell, the phone didn’t become a useable device until the 3GS iteration as far as I’m concerned – they bought Siri a year ago, and voice interface is right in the wheelhouse of a company that makes Star Trek goods.  And not everybody wants to look at a screen for everything.

This too-long post was brought to you by Random Jabbering As A Warm-Up For The Day’s Work.

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