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Little-Used Voice Assistants Are the Future of Smart Phones

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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With the imminent arrival of Google‘s latest Android operating system later this month, Apple’s iOS upgrades this fall and Microsoft’s relentless push to make Windows relevant to mobile devices, a lot of people are talking about smartphones and tablets. The next few months will also likely see an increasing number of people talking to these devices as well.

Voice assistants such as Siri, which Apple introduced with the iPhone 4S last year, and Google’s Voice Actions, which has been available on Android phones for the past couple of years, have thus far been little more than a novelty. Smartphone and tablet users are more comfortable relying on their fingers to navigate touch-screen gadgets, and the quality of voice-activated software has done little to win them over.

This trend is likely to change by the end of the year as the technology improves and phone and tablet makers look for new ways to differentiate their products. Voice-activated search, dictation and other features alone haven’t influenced purchasing decisions yet, but those features will become something that consumers expect when buying devices for the year-end holidays, says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with technology research firm Gartner. “If [voice-assistant software] is not there or not done well, it’s going to be noticeable,” he adds.

With the release of iOS 6 this fall, Apple will broaden Siri’s repertoire to include several new languages, among them Spanish, Italian, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese. Siri users can also ask the software to update their status on Facebook, post to Twitter or launch apps, and iOS 6 will be available to iPhone, iPad and iPod touch users as a free software update.

Apple has spent a good deal of time and money (presumably Samuel L. Jackson’s acting talents don’t come cheap) showing off Siri just to let consumers know it’s there. “Voice commands are not the natural way people interact with their devices,” Gartenberg says, adding that Siri also provided Apple with an important way of distinguishing the iPhone 4S from the iPhone 4.

Google is stepping up its voice-assistant software with the latest version of Android. Also known as Jelly Bean, Android 4.1 features Google Now, which the company claims has faster and more natural voice-search capabilities than previous Android voice-assistant software. “With Google, it’s all about driving search on mobile devices,” Gartenberg says. “The more people are using Google search on their devices, the better it is for Google. That’s where the company makes most of its money.”

One key difference between Android and iOS is that Google’s voice-search and other software are available on a number of different devices, including the iPhone. Of course, iOS and Siri are available only on Apple products. This arrangement provides Google with some flexibility, but it also means the company is beholden to Samsung, Nokia and device makers when it comes to installing Jelly Bean on their products. Not surprisingly, Google-branded phones—the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus—and the new Nexus 7 tablet will be the first to use Jelly Bean when they begin shipping by the end of July. Since May, Samsung has offered its own voice-activated personal-assistant software called S Voice on the company’s Galaxy S III phone, which uses an older version of Android. The Galaxy S III is expected to start using Jelly Bean by the end of the year, a move that could make S Voice expendable.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has been trying get firm footing in the smartphone market, which means voice-activated controls are a must. Fortunately, Microsoft has offered TellMe voice-activated search, dictation and calling as part of its Windows Mobile operating system (now called Windows Phone) since 2009. Ford and Kia also use TellMe software in their automobiles to give their drivers hands-free control of their in-car entertainment systems, phones and rear-view cameras. One of Microsoft’s problems has been attracting handset makers of stature, an issue the company began to resolve late last year when Nokia decided to install Windows Phone 7 on its lineup of Lumia phones.

Image courtesy of Apple

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. zsingerb 12:00 am 07/9/2012

    Not a chance. I would not use a voice assistant. And I don’t know anyone who will. If it hasn’t spawned a grass roots user base by now, it’s a dead end, no matter how good it gets.

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  2. 2. abledoc 12:47 am 07/9/2012

    Ensure that your writers know what they are writing about. Nokia does not make android phones for the authors information.
    ” This arrangement provides Google with some flexibility, but it also means the company is beholden to Samsung, Nokia and device makers when it comes to installing Jelly Bean on their products”

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  3. 3. lamorpa 8:41 am 07/9/2012

    There’s no question voice control is the future. I use it now and it’s quite effective. Growth of this feature is going to be exponential over the next 5 years. The question is: As I dictate a text message while driving, am I subject to breaking the ‘texting while driving’ laws? I’m less engaged than someone talking on their phone or even lighting a cigarette.

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  4. 4. tharriss 1:10 pm 07/9/2012

    “I’m less engaged than someone talking on their phone or even lighting a cigarette.”

    Just a thought… you might be less physically engaged, but mentally? I’d think composing an email, especially if it is complicated (say business related instead of just casual conversation) would easily take one’s mind off the road.

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  5. 5. doug_pdq 3:16 pm 07/9/2012

    @Iamorpha – Agreed – I hardly ever try to type in a search query for Google on an iPhone 3. It misunderstands some phrases but gets most of them first try. It does not like high ambient noise but the convenience of just speaking several query words is great, particularly for someone who types poorly and slowly on a phone. I don’t answer or handle a phone while driving. I made a mobile links page with large letters and saved it to the phone. It is a very quick way to drill down to animated local weather maps, news sites or a more detailed page of favorite links. These tools are getting better and I,for one, am still on a steep learning curve, figuring out what these things are good for.

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  6. 6. uconnron 3:22 pm 07/9/2012

    I use voice assist on my Samsung Galaxy Note. It has been very effective when I do a search, For example, Speaking “Hotels in Madison, Connecticut” gives me the locations and info of hotels in this area in a matter of seconds.

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  7. 7. lamorpa 3:27 pm 07/9/2012


    That’s why I said I was sending a text message, not an email.

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  8. 8. Crasher 5:31 pm 07/9/2012

    Humans communicate via voice…it will become huge when it works flawlessly. By that I mean when it works like talking to someone who can understand not just words but interpret meaning from the way something is said. A lot of work has been done to perfect this and it gets closer all the time. I have always said texting was a passing phase and have been laughed at…..I think my prophercy is about to come true. Texting and gestures are for losers, voice is the way…it is natural.

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  9. 9. Kibrah 1:39 pm 07/12/2012

    Is this technology being used to assist the hard-of-hearing community? Could voice assistants be used to provide speech to text in real time for the hard of hearing? Please comment on any available devices. Thank you.

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  10. 10. AtlantaTerry 3:55 pm 07/16/2012

    Ask the folks on Starship Enterprise, they seem to work well with the technology.

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  11. 11. AtlantaTerry 4:00 pm 07/16/2012

    About texting or dictating while driving. I live in the state of Georgia in the United States. Not only do we have a law prohibiting texting while driving we also have one about “distracted driving” so I assume that would include dictation.

    I really do not like to talk on my cell phone while driving. It feels as though I have tunnel vision. When someone calls me while I’m driving I just let it ring until the caller leaves a message (so many are junk calls, anyhow). At the next red light I check to see who called and if it’s important I find a place to pull over to stop the car while returning the call. Otherwise I just return the call when I get back to my home or office.

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  12. 12. shirleyewejest 1:30 pm 08/12/2012

    Technology has robbed people of the opportunity to use those perceptual communication skills necessary to discern truthfulness, deception and emotionally charged conversations. Words,avatars, smiley face expressions are poor substitutes for face to face communication and voice assistants fall into same category.

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