The coming evolution of the conversational interface

To make this jump we have to overcome what killed Microsoft Bob: our resistance to change. Halo may make all the difference.

windows 10 Creators Update cortana oobe
IDG / Mark Hachman

Last week I wrote on how Cortana and her peers, Apple Siri and Amazon Alexa, were likely to evolve in a VR world to become the primary interface because touch, mice, and keyboards, in a virtual world, make aren’t practical unless you are emulating something that uses them. Because of Cortana’s connection to video gaming, I think it, or she, has an advantage over the others. This is because you can emulate the future in a game and reduce the resistance the change so that when the interface matures people, at least those that have played the game that uses her, will not only be ready for the change they’ll drive it rather than resist it. 

Let’s talk about the likely evolution of the conversational interface and what we learned from Microsoft Bob.

Microsoft Bob

Microsoft Bob (Disclosure:  Microsoft is a client of the Author) was initially created in the mid-1990s to be a computer interface for folks that were intimidated by computers. The ironic thing is that it worked well for that, particularly for retired people who were intimidated by computers they tended to love it. It used friendly looking avatars, kind of extremely crude early versions of a Cortana like interface-emulating talking pets, which the users could interact with. Problem was the folks in Microsoft started to talk about it like it would replace Windows as the next thing, and since we are talking about Cortana doing exactly that, they were kind of right, just around 3 or 4 decades too early. 

I still remember Microsoft giving free copies of Bob with balloons at one of their developer’s conferences, or to exactly the folks that would hate Bob (developers back then didn’t even really like Windows, they wanted a command interface) and found, by the end of the event, the balloons and Bob copies had become attached and most were floating from the ceiling. The developers not only said NO! they said Hell NO! and Bob died a premature death. 

One interesting tidbit was one of the lead people behind Bob later married Bill Gates so it is hard to feel bad for her (she’s become a legend in her own right), but it was an unfair end to what was a decent idea that had been badly targeted.  

The problem

But the premature death of Bob showcases a problem, we really, really, really don’t like change. In fact, as noted above, when Microsoft first announced Windows in the 1980s developers weren’t exactly fans of it either even though it effectively emulated the MacOS which had proceeded it. A similar problem we can see today is with self-driving cars, a recent AAA survey indicated that up to 75 percent of potential buyers would avoid this technology because they don’t yet trust it even though it could save their or their kids’ lives. 

Before a change, like moving to a more pervasive virtual reality or mixed reality technology and a conversational interface can take off folks must get comfortable with it. 

Amazon vs. Microsoft vs. Apple: the battle of the avatars!

We started with Apple’s Siri, and she kind of sucked. This was largely because Apple’s ads seemed to promise an experience that Siri couldn’t deliver but, thankfully, Apple users tend to be tolerant these days (a similar problem with the Apple Newton in the 1990s killed the product) and there is, fortunately for Apple, far more to the Apple phone than Siri (which has improved).

Amazon’s Echo started out more like the iPod, it basically did a few things well and they didn’t over promise. Given Alexa is the only pervasive interface into the product (there is an Echo application for advanced functions but you generally live with Alexa) you are forced to use the interface. However, you see the way the interface is, and folks typically aren’t good an imagining what it will become. So, for many, using it for home automation, for instance, has been a non-starter.  

Microsoft’s Cortana, on the other hand, also exists in the popular game Halo and in that artificial instance appears more as she will be and not as she is. Players then become comfortable working with her more as a broad interface with less of the natural restrictions surrounding both Siri and Alexa. The result, at least for those that play the game, should be more anticipation of this future broad capability and less resistance. 

I should add that this is likely a tide that raises all boats as well, for while the initial connection would be with Cortana, it likely would apply to the entire class of next generation conversational interfaces making Halo players far more willing to accept the entire class of AI driven interfaces, not just Cortana. 

Wrapping up

The move to a conversational Cortana Halo like interface is coming but its movement, like the graphical user interfaces of the past, and self-driving cars that are coming, will likely be hampered by our resistance to change. However, Halo, which uses Cortana in its likely future form, should provide an advocacy base of people that, rather than resisting this change, will aggressively desire it. This not only will help Microsoft’s effort but it should help all the other efforts, though given a natural affinity for the avatar they have come to know, it will likely benefit Cortana most. This benefit will only result, however, if some other Avatar doesn’t get to critical mass first. Microsoft increased the speed of the race, and got an advantage, but they don’t yet have a car on the track making it still anyone’s race to win. 

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