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After a month, Siri finds her voice

Michael deAgonia | Nov. 25, 2011
The arrival of voice technology that works marks an inflection point in computing.

Pop culture references, smart aleck remarks, and sometimes unintentionally funny responses create an emotional, visceral connection with the device; you never quite know what answer you're going to get. It helps humanize the technology further and subtly encourages you to keep asking questions and interacting with Siri. As Samuel L. Jackson said in Pulp Fiction, personality goes a long way. The seeming randomness of Siri will get people to use it, but it's not just for fun.

In the past month, I've used my voice to create a wide variety of reminders, notes, appointments, emails, and text messages. I've used my voice to look up word definitions, check traffic, and find the location of my friends. Since I spend a lot of time driving in my car, the ability to do this by simply speaking out loud is a big deal. Ideas that I couldn't write down in the moment are easily transcribed by tapping my hands-free unit and starting with "Note to self"; things I need to do or items I need to buy are quickly added to my Shit lists ("Siri, add this to my To Do -- or To Buy or To Fix -- list, thanks"). In the past month, I have used reminders, timers, calendars and messages more than I did during the entire summer I spent working with the dev builds of iOS 5, and I'm convinced that once people are more aware of Siri, they will, too.

Why? Siri is effective and simple. Tapping out letters and words -- which requires unlocking the phone, navigating to an app, launching the app, oftentimes hitting a + button to add a new note or reminder, then typing -- suddenly seems like a waste of time. With Siri, completing tasks has essentially been reduced to thinking out loud.

Some of the things Siri can do are as fascinating as some of the things it can't. For instance, I can tell Siri, "Remind me to call Mom when I get home," thereby creating, in effect, a "geo-fence" around my home location using the built-in GPS. I'll get an alert upon arrival at the house. But I can't tell Siri to decrease the brightness of the display or to toggle bluetooth on or off. (There's a tip guide built in so you don't have to guess too often about what Siri is capable of.)

More work needed

Although Siri easily crosses the bar set by earlier voice command software, there's obviously still work to be done; voice interaction and the technology behind it are very much a work in progress. Siri's voice recognition is handled by Dragon -- still at it, after all these years -- and the noise-canceling technology built into modern gadgets means clunky headsets are increasingly optional. But any ability to control a device by voice alone is only as good as the ability to transcribe the voice accurately. Siri's software can still be thrown off by regional accents, slang, and excessive background noise.


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