Wait! What 😳? I asked: “Hey Siri. What can you tell me about my wife?” And I was expecting or anticipating to get some general information like maybe her age, her occupation and perhaps some social media updates. As I was giving my wife some examples of voice commands, I most certainly did NOT expect to get Siri’s, Big Love inspired(?), response: “Which wife?”.

When we both quickly looked up at the screen, it turned out that I had two separate contact entries for my wife’s name on my phone, and Siri needed to know which one I was looking for. So Siri didn’t have a problem hearing me, also did know who my wife is, did have the information available, but still stumbled on a seemingly minor detail.

So much for live demoing 😉, but it’s a fair example of the current state of voice assistants. A recent Digital Assistant IQ test did put Google ahead of Apple’s Siri, but I don’t expect Google to have handled it much better.

However, I’m increasingly growing fonder of using voice commands for certain tasks, as they just give a better experience (i.e. more convenient) than a gesture or typed input. In general, repetitive, daily tasks are most likely to be more convenient through a voice command. 

For me it’s “Turn on/off the lights”, “Set an alarm/timer for..”, “Is it going to rain?“, and (even if the answer to the former question is affirmative); “Start an activity outdoor walking” (because I’m already holding the dogs leash, the door keys 🔑, possibly an umbrella 🌂, and a ball 🎾 the dog 🐶 is trying to grab).

They’re basically cues or simple questions that I know my connected devices can handle (and don’t yet handle on their own automatically).

[intermezzo regarding connected lights 💡: voice operating your (connected) lights, in my case Philips Hue indoor & outdoor through Apple Home, is the same difference as using a landline ☎️ versus a smartphone 📱; the experience and range of possibilities is almost incomparable.]

Today (July 26, 2018), in the Netherlands, a slew of new ‘Skills’ became available on Google Assistant as they launched their Dutch language capability.

It included among others two national news broadcaster (@NOS, @RTL), our two airlines (@KLM, @Transavia), one of the biggest banks (@Rabobank) and two of the biggest energy suppliers (@Essent and @Eneco) that have connected thermostats. And, finally, our biggest grocery stores (@AlbertHeijn and @Jumbo), online retailer (@Bol.com) and our national postal service (@PostNL).

The fact that all these big players are present at launch does give an indication of the expected potential of voice assistants. I haven’t been able to test them yet, but from what I understand from the various press releases the possible actions are mostly status updates and generic commands, some of which might make more sense (to me) than others.This is a good thing because through experimenting with all these skills you can on the one hand experience the limitations and on the other see the possibilities of voice commands and interactions.

For understanding ‘Voice’ it’s especially important to get an idea of all the implications/variations of a simple question; as you see on the screen recording below, Siri is changing it’s understanding of my question as I speak.

Siri setting alarm demo.gif

For example; if I had paused a little longer after stating ‘6:30’ it would have set an alarm for the same day. You can try it yourself with any kind of voice command and see the different variations it goes through (at least with Apple’s Siri you can see it happen).

In my experience comparing voice interactions with typed or gestured interactions some routines are just faster, where others are just cumbersome. This is keeping in mind the complete interaction: question and answer, where the latter can be simply executed (e.g. lights go on/off), spoken or displayed(!). 

As Ben Sauer pointed out in his #OpenVoice presentation: “Using voice input is great because it’s faster than typing. [but] Listening to voice output is hard because it’s slower than reading.

The faster voice commanded, fully completed routines will stick.

Keeping this in mind I can look forward to a lot more voice commanded (kitchen) appliances, so I don’t have to operate them with my dirty or otherwise occupied hands. And I can imagine that setting up devices through voice commands can give a much richer and more fulfilling experience.