Enjoyable voice recognition, is it FINALLY here?

Ken Snyder's picture

Given today it the release date of the new iPhone, I want to talk about something else at Apple the really caught my attention -- their automated customer care.   Last week I had to call Apple to find out how to get the sales tax removed from a purchase given our 501(c)3 status.  It was a complicated set of questions I needed to ask -- and yet the conversation was as smooth as talking to a live person.  It struck me I was getting a sneak preview of something that is going to radically transform how we use technology on a daily basis -- FINALLY.

Like a  favorite pair of worn jeans, computing power and the internet will eventually become an almost effortless part of our lives.  Having grown up with Star Trek, the Jetsons, and the 2001 Space Odyssey, my generation has been fantasizing about flawless voice recognition for decades.  Most gadgets and applications attempting voice recognition, however, have been downright comical in their performance.  Google voice search has impressed me numerous times but my experience with Apple felt like a league above.  Their system recognized the context of my questions even as I stumbled with what to ask and responded with sentences and a voice that nearly fooled me into thinking I was talking to a live person.

Wired magazine had a short piece last year on how difficult it has been to master voice recognition/response given all the nuances that come with tone, accents, and competing background noise.  Our brains do an amazing job at subconsciously interpreting hard to hear words through an understanding of context and sentence structure and being able to filter out noises that are not of interest.  We have all had those calls with automated systems where you're ready to throw the phone out the window, the interpretation is so bad.  Here is one of my favorites:

Context: A participate in our Wichita Walkshop left a message on our tech support hotline, which Google Voice then translated and sent me the following email:

"Yeah, this is Ben Foster and I was just want to get a hold of somebody from that which tell walk shop from this afternoon session that hi up they uploaded some my photos and they gave me instructions how to get 2 months, liquor, but can't seem to find them..."

Just for the record, my staff is not distributing 2 months of liquor, hi up, to our walkshop participants.  If you know "which tell" was  "Wichita" and "get 2 month liquor" was "get them onto Flickr" you can piece together what was really said.

While the next iPhone, and the first generation of the iPad show us how hardware/software are becoming more and more intuitive in responding to body movement and touch, adding accurate, effortless voice recognition, in my opinion, will give us the holy trinity of integrated technology.  Jason's blog on the iPad highlights some of the many ways location aware, motion and touch sensitive devices can be used in planning and civic participation.  Being able to talk to these devices and have things interpreted accurately will open up another whole new world of potential applications.  Looking forward to it.

* This blog was posted on PlaceMatters as well.

Ken Snyder is Executive Director of PlaceMatters

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