Voice-based digital assistants fuel a hand-free, connected life with phone or PC, but how well do they understand you?
IndiaTechOnline Special Focus
Bangalore, May 16 2016: Five years ago, Apple gave voice to iPhone 4s -- through Siri, the digital assistant to whom you could talk, when in need of some information. Since then the Intelligent Personal Assistant or IPA has evolved across multiple platforms.
When Microsoft launched the Windows 10 operating system last year, it came with its own speaking assistant, Cortana, in the US. By now it has been extended to India and on desktop, tablet or Windows phone, you can wake up Cortana while searching and ask her questions rather than typing them in the search box. We can understand why Microsoft took an extra year to activate Cortana in India: she had to learn the many accents of Indian English -- and as I found, she is a good learner. She could figure out almost all of what I spoke, as long as I did it in a slow and deliberate voice. And they have trained her to react like a true Bharati: Asked if she liked Sachin, she responds “He’s the God of Cricket who’s bowled me over.” And she says her favorites are kabbadi and golgappa.
If your phone or tablet runs on Android 4.1 or later version , you can click on the microphone symbol in the Google search box to bring up the voice assistant. Or you can get the voice search function by installing the Google Now app, if you have a non Android phone.
Amazon has just joined the voice-based business -- with a slightly different focus. It has developed a hand-free 20 cm-high, cylindrical speaker called Echo which you can control through voice, courtesy Alexa. (See Image of the Day for illustration) Thanks to seven microphones and beam forming technology, she can hear you from anywhere in the room, even while she is playing the music of your choice. If your home is smart enough, you can even have Alexa turn lights or microwave or air conditioning on or off. Not yet available in India, Echo-Alexa can be ordered in the US for delivery in June , for the equivalent of Rs 12,000. Eventually Amazon might integrate Alexa with its website.
For the next big thing in Voice assistants, from the
makers of Siri, see our Image of the Day.
Alexa, Cortana, Google Now and Siri are being called the Fab Four of Voice-based assistance -- and all of them have to grapple with one big tech hurdle: how naturally can users speak to be understood. The Web is replete with jokes of Siri offering bizarre, cheeky answers when she has doubts. As developers refine the voice products, they will get better at the job of processing natural language.
All these efforts are concentrated in a few languages, including English -- which touches only a small fraction of India's one billion plus mobile phone subscribers. There is a huge opportunity for innovation here: giving voice to desi language avatars of Cortana and company. That will also address the huge challenge that so many Indian users face -- using a language keypad. Software wizards, the time to do IT has come -- because, like it or not, Voice is the next big wave of the future. - Anand Parthasarathy