We control our computers and phones by pointing, clicking, swiping, poking and typing. But these interfaces are about to go almost extinct. Instead, we'll interact with our machines the same way we interact with each other—by talking.
Amazon's Echo, which is a big hit with some users, is helping to usher in the habit of talking to appliances. Google and Apple are reportedly working on Amazon Echo-like virtual assistant appliances as well. Of course, all three companies currently have various voice-controlled products and services, including TV control boxes and car dashboard systems.
Years ago, when Bluetooth headsets first hit the market, it was nearly impossible to distinguish while in public between headset users and people having conversations with the voice in their heads.
Today, experts assume voice interfaces will come to us through extensions to Siri, Google Now, Cortana and Alexa. For example, Apple's HomeKit is designed in part to enable home automation appliances to be controlled via Siri. Other companies bringing voice-command home automation into reality include Athom, CastleOS, Insteon, Ivee and others.
But we're also getting a world of devices that have their own voice-command interface built in.
The voice-control, voice-assistant revolution in time will have us all talking to objects all over our homes and offices. Meanwhile, the public is slowly adjusting to the idea of interacting with smart devices through conversation.
While voice recognition has existed for years, the interface is about to take off for two reasons. The first is the so-called Internet of things (IoT). Everyday objects are getting microchips and Internet connections, so why not microphones?
Second, artificial intelligence (AI) will enable devices to not only understand everyday language, but also do powerful things with simple commands.
Even technology fans and pundits don't seem to know what's coming. But I believe that five years from now, talking will become the dominant user interface for office equipment, home appliances, cars and more, including (of course) smartphones and computers. Oh, and robots!
The trend is also inevitable: Since the dawn of computing, when human operators jumped through interface hoops by controlling computers with switches, punch cards and worse, the increasing computer power available to interface designers has been applied to making the computers work harder to speak our language—first with typed words, then with pictographic images (icons) and, now, conversation.
The revolution, in fact, has already begun. Here are some of the unexpected devices you can already talk to.
Talk to Your Ceiling Fan
The great thing about ceiling fans, from an IoT perspective, is that they're in the middle of the room and already have electrical power. The shape of normal ceiling fans also invites the cramming of electronics inside the base.
That's why smart ceiling fans such as Big Ass Fans' Haiku SenseMe fan are just the beginning.
The Haiku SenseMe fan's smartness is an option. By ordering the optional SenseMe package, you can do all kinds of IoT tricks, including controlling it with a smartphone or connecting it to a Nest thermostat, allowing the fan to switch on automatically under user-programmed parameters.
Best of all, the SenseMe-enhanced fan comes with a microphone and WiFi connection, which enables you to use the fan as an Amazon Echo. You talk to the fan and Amazon's Alexa virtual assistant talks back, giving you the weather, enabling you to order things from Amazon and answering your random questions.
Talk to Your Light Bulbs
Products such as the EasyBulb let you control lights with voice commands spoken into your smartphone with the EasyBulb app—open, of course.
But a line of "smart” light sockets called Vocca Light lets you control lights without the use of a smartphone. A "pro" model even lets you set magic words that will turn the light on or off. Or you can program on-off times.
Talk to Your Thermostat
Future thermostats will be smart as a matter of course. But they'll also offer voice commands. The first of this new generation is the Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat with Voice Control.