After a month, Siri finds her voice

The arrival of voice technology that works marks an inflection point in computing

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During my initial testing of Siri right after I got my iPhone 4S, I wanted to know the exact date for the upcoming Friday, so I asked Siri, and Siri told me. I followed up, "When is Halloween?" Siri responded, "Halloween is on Monday, October 31, 2011. I sure hope I get the day off." It was enough for me to do a double-take; and I haven't been able to duplicate that response since.

Siri search image
Siri can tell you what airplanes are in the sky above you in real-time.

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.

More annoyingly, Siri requires an active network connection to work -- even for tasks local to the phone. As most AT&T subscribers can attest, this just isn't possible at all times. Even if you have a connection, Apple's servers -- which process the commands -- have to be up and running as well, and they've already had brief outages. There's nothing more annoying than the sudden fail of technology you've grown to rely on.

Despite existing shortcomings, the crazy-good part about Siri is that this is just the beginning. How quaint the software that powered the original iPhone now looks, four years in. Imagine how quaint Siri 1.0 will seem four years from now. Like the hardware and software that hosts it, Siri will only become better with time.

Siri restaurant listing
Tell Siri you're hungry and you'll a list of nearby restaurants.

Any technology hoping to gain mass appeal has to be good enough to change the thought process from "Why are you using that?" to "Why aren't you using that?" In essence, it has to offer a continuing "wow" moment that starts a feedback loop of sorts. You try Siri and find that it generally works well enough to keep trying it. You find that it's not just useful, but fun, which encourages more experimentation. And that helps the technology behind it "learn" how users are using it, thus allowing engineers to make it better and, in turn, encourage even more use.

Like any good paradigm-shifting technology, Siri removes layers that have, until now, prevented many people from interacting with the wealth of information available at their fingertips. Its arrival marks another turning point in how we integrate technology (and information) into our daily lives.

On a lark, I told Siri, "You're pretty cool technology, Siri."

The response: "Am I? I'd like to be."

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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