The Missing Link in the Voice AI/UI Experience

By now you probably are aware a sort of battle in voice and AI is brewing between Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon. Google has Google Now. Microsoft has Cortana, and Apple has Siri. And, most recently, Amazon joined the fray with Alexa on their Echo device platform.

Apple kicked off the battle when they introduced Siri, although Google had Google Now in the works and followed suit pretty quickly. Interestingly, Microsoft also had a lot of work internally on voice UIs and an AI engine and took the next big step in making Cortana a voice interface embedded in Windows Mobile and recently, in Windows desktop. Amazon did not have a mobile or desktop play so they had to create a device to deliver a voice/AI device, which comes through their Echo system.

But the move to add voice to the UI has been going on for decades. In fact, many science fiction movies introduced voice UIs for man-to-machine interaction. Of course, Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey is the most famous of the movie bunch. The reason we are seeing more activity in this space now is the technology to deliver AI-based speech solutions is finally getting to the place where the communication is less robotic and moving towards a more conversational approach to interacting with a computer, mobile device or various other technologies we have in our digital lifestyles.

I have been studying the role of voice AI in UIs for about five years and have always felt that, if the technology ever matured and became powerful enough to deliver a more conversational and contextual approach to the man-machine interface, it could be the most viable way people will interact with technology in the future. Now, thanks to more powerful processors, great advances in Natural Language Interfaces (NLI), Neural Networks and deep learning techniques, AI-based voice interfaces are set to become one of the important new ways all of us will interact with technology in the future.

What this should bring to tech interfaces is a more natural, conversational approach to interacting with our devices and make them more useful to us, especially in particular environments. However, especially in hands-free environments for example, there is a missing link. Think about how this works today. On your mobile device you take it out and ask Siri, Google Now or Cortona a question and it responds. But how natural is that? What I believe needs to happen is for that mobile device to stay in the pocket and a person is able to just ask a question and it gives the answer back verbally, or if you have to see it in terms of perhaps a map or other data, it then prompts you to look at the screen.

But to get to that point I see the missing link as being wireless, non-obtrusive earbuds connected to a mobile device that let a person talk to their phone and get the answers through the earpiece as much as possible. I realize that won’t work all the time but, given the fact so many answers these voice assistants can give come just through voice feedback, it would still be a huge improvement over taking the mobile device out of the pocket every time someone wants an answer from a Siri, Cortana or Google Now.

The problem at the moment is today’s wireless headsets are still ugly, big and even worse, deliver pretty low quality audio experiences. My personal favorite is the one from Bose, but that product has been discontinued and even it is not that good looking. Most of the others I have tried are still either too big or have poor quality sound. There is a new breed of wireless earbuds supposed to be used for hands-free calls and listening to music such as the Braghi Dash and the fFlat5 Aria One True Wireless Earphone that are relatively small and fit in the ear. But these are way too big and obtrusive for most people.

An interesting twist though may come from companies who have roots in the hearing aid industry and whose current high-end products pretty much disappear into the ear and can’t be seen by anyone. Although these are high priced and have to come from dedicated audio doctors or specialty hearing aid clinics, these types of earbuds are much closer to the concept I have in mind and would be more acceptable to a broad audience that wants to have more handsfree control of their digital mobile experience, especially as the AI software becomes more powerful and conversational. In talking to some of these hearing aid companies, it seems they too see an opportunity to branch out from their traditional medically driven focus and begin trying to innovate around new types of designs that would be more consumer friendly.

I hope so since I believe they have the missing link as part of a more efficient man-to-machine interface where voice and AI are part of the new UI and help deliver a seamless way to interact with and get information on the go.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

2 thoughts on “The Missing Link in the Voice AI/UI Experience”

  1. Thank you for reinforcing this AI / UI opportunity space. Our organization does work in large manufacturing facilities. In those environments less elegant designs would still work well as hearing protection / augmentation.

    Do you envision processing directly in the audio device or do you think they will always be paired with another device ?

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