FROM Apple's iPhone to Microsoft's Xbox, we're talking more to the gadgets and devices that share our lives. Increasingly they're talking back.
But here's the problem: Talking to your gadget can be a lot like talking to a welltrained dog. It will sit, follow, roll over and fetch things. It might even speak. But if the technology fails, which is not infrequently, you might as well be talking to a cat.
Talking to gadgets breaks down into three broad categories: commands, dictation and queries. Commands occur when you use your voice to control your gadget, usually to open up applications. Just about any smartphone will do that now. Dictation treats your gadget like a secretary, enabling it to transcribe your words into written sentences for emails and text messages which it will send for you. Most smartphones will also do that.
Queries are like spoken Google searches, and are increasingly found on devices like the iPhone and Android-based phones and tablets. You want to know something, you ask your iPhone. It might reply right back to you in voice or take you to a web page and show you the information.
This is all pretty cool. Up until last year, I wirelessly paired a BlackBerry phone with a BlueAnt speakerphone in my car. It allowed me, purely by voice, to call specific numbers, hear text messages and take calls, all without touching the phone or the speaker.
I simply had to say, "BlueAnt, speak to me." It would reply, with a compliance I wish reporters had: "Say a command."
It worked "fairly well" because if I had the windows open to traffic or music on the car stereo, or merely didn't speak loudly enough, the obedient dog became a sleeping cat. My command "Call Courier" often became a frustrated plea repeated several times when the BlackBerry/BlueAnt combo came back with "Call Corry?" I gave up. It was faster to pull over and dial the number safely by hand or wait until I reached the office.
And that's one of two big problems with talking to gadgets: external noise throws them off. The BlueAnt speakerphone is a great piece of kit under optimal conditions, but a bus roaring by on Granville Street can render it useless.
My experience with my Xbox and its Kinect add-on device illustrates the other problem with voice technology: while convenient, it's not necessarily faster than a conventional keyboard or touch screen. The Xbox-Kinect combo is almost Star Treklike. If I'm making dinner in the kitchen, I can shout out into the living room, "Xbox! Quickplay! Netflix!" It will start up Netflix for me, including selecting the show or movie I want to watch and pausing or restarting it at will.
But notice two things: I am shouting (the Kinect is also vulnerable to external noise), and I have to preface each remark with "Xbox!" which is goofy. And in half the time it takes for me to shout, "Xbox! Music, Zune, my collection, next, next, next, The Tragically Hip, play," I could have used the Xbox remote control to perform the same task. Most of the time that's what I do.
Queries are the newest features of talking technology on gadgets, best exemplified by the Siri application on the iPhone and by rival systems from Samsung and Google. They show real promise. But even here mileage will vary.
While writing this column, I asked the Siri system on my work iPhone about the weather forecast. It came back with accurate results in both voice and graphics flashed on the phone's screen. But when I asked it to identify the mayor of Vancouver, it paused and wanted to take me to a web page of general results and exit Siri. So much for clever conversation.
It failed three times in a row to find the stock price for Glacier Media, our parent corporation. (Each time it interpreted Glacier as "Lacier.") It also did not know where to find the best pizza in town. That gap in its knowledge is a problem specific to countries outside of the U.S. Apparently the American version of Siri can answer openended questions fairly well, but that kind of functionality won't be coming to our land until an operating system update this fall.
In fairness, Siri performed extremely well when using it to send test texts and emails. But as an alleged game changer it's a fun party gag for about half a minute. No one I know uses it routinely.
It will get better. As the technology improves, we'll get more trained dog than indifferent cat with our gadgets. But for now, you can save your voice.
Barry Link is editor of the Vancouver Courier newspaper. Email him at blink@vancourier. com or follow him on Twitter @trueblinkit.