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.
Voice Control Will Make the Internet of Things Very Chatty
By saying “Hello, Thermostat,” you activate the device’s listening mode. You can give it natural language commands such as, “Make it warmer,” or, “Turn down the temperature by 3 degrees.” You can even describe your own temperature, as in, “I feel cold,” and the thermostat will turn up the heat.
Talk to Your Sound System
Sonos makes great WiFi-connected, smartphone app-controlled speakers. Recently, the company decided to transform its future line of speakers into Amazon Echo-like virtual assistant connected speakers, so you can talk to your speakers and have them talk back.
The move may be a response to Amazon’s development of the Amazon Dot, which is an Echo-like appliance designed to work with third-party speakers, including Sonos products.
In the wake of Sonos’ announcement, wireless audio and home entertainment equipment maker D&M Group promised something similar. Within a few years, I expect all major home sound systems to offer voice control.
Talk to Your Drone
A drone called the Flypro is taking off on Kickstarter and leading the industry in innovative drone interfaces. The Flypro’s XEagle camera drone line includes voice control, among other features.
The drone comes with a dedicated controller wristwatch. By speaking commands into the watch, you control the drone. For example, you can say, “Flypro, take off,” and, “Flypro, follow me,” according to the company’s online video.
This product is a great example of how intelligence enables a voice-command interface. You wouldn’t be able to fly a drone by voice commands unless the drone was capable of taking off, hovering, avoiding obstacles and following you around while recording you on video by itself.
People Will Talk
The voice control revolution will be driven by the IoT and AI revolutions, and the social implications of this transition to voice interfaces will be enormous.
Children born today will never have to use their hands to use a computer. Novice computer users will be a thing of the past, because no knowledge will be required to use electronic devices.
The need for reading will decline when we can listen to our books, magazines and Internet posts and talk to food containers and pill bottles. Some will question the need for the skill of reading, just as today some wonder whether we need to teach handwriting.
Companies will struggle to figure out how to prevent a voice command intended for one device to be picked up by another. You could try to turn the garage light on but instead fire up the leaf blower.
There will be enormous security implications, too. While many devices will get person-recognition capabilities and only respond to the owner’s voice, many will not. And a person’s voice is easily spoofed or recorded.
Most AI commands will be processed in the cloud, which means the recordings of our voices will be uploaded and stored—possibly forever—on remote servers. This is already happening with Google, Amazon and other companies that offer virtual assistants.
As people get in the habit of using voice interfaces, it will be more difficult to keep our activities private because anyone within earshot will know what we’re trying to do. A casual use of voice commands to book flights will alert those nearby that our homes will be empty while we’re away. Business communication will be overheard.
One ironic development will be the decline of apps and the return of the command line interface. We’ll be in the habit of talking as a way to make our computers and devices do things for us, but when we want to be quiet or private we’ll type in those same commands.
At first, talking to objects and devices will be deemed generally socially unacceptable, just as people on the street talking to their smartphone via Bluetooth interfaces were looked upon with suspicion and, perhaps, pity. But then we’ll adjust and accept it.
I think the spoken word interface will be the method by which we interact not only with our computers and phones, but also our everyday smart appliances.