January 3, 2014

Technology is often times iteratively and so subtly improved that when a truly amazing breakthrough occurs the luster has already faded. The ability of a computer to accurately recognize human speech firmly falls into this category. My earliest realization that a computer could one day be capable of natural language recognition was sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s when Dragon Naturally Speaking made its way into PC and Mac Mall catalogs. While they did exist in the consumer market, I didn't actually get a chance to experience the technology until Apple developed and bundled PlainTalk with Mac OS 9 in 1999. PlainTalk, like Dragon sought to solve the problem of data input. PlainTalk floundered and subsequently disappeared in the transition to OS X (voice recognition returned in Mountain Lion) and the use cases for Dragon dried up as people became better at typing, yet for me, these two products set my imagination ablaze with possibility.

Based on where my interests were focused during the 2000s voice recognition fell off the radar and I missed quite a bit. Fast forward to 2011 and the introduction of Siri as the iPhone 4s' killer feature. A decade had passed and technology had progressed to the point of harnessing humanity's internet hosted knowledge through the power of voice. When you think about it, it is an amazing feat. What a profoundly impactful development that was hindered by our inability as humans to see past the flaws of the implementation. Siri's voice recognition and language processing were, and still are quite remarkable with profound accuracy. Server load and internet latency have crippled the product despite it being quite remarkable.

Xbox One brought voice control into the living room with mass market appeal. Microsoft takes a different approach to the problem by delivering a self reliant unit. Unlike the iPhone, Xbox One can process commands offline with a deeper understanding to the context of supplied commands. It doesn't come without fault though. Voice commands are often painfully slow to process or completely fail. When it does work though, the experience is quite magical and it really does provide a proper demonstration of the future. I do believe wholeheartedly in the future of the remote-less living room, we will first have to suffer through the dark years before it evolves into something amazing. For now though, I fear voice recognition in available consumer devices is no better than a dog at understanding context. While it is cute and endearing for an animal to struggle with fulfilling commands, it is nothing but madness when communicating with a soulless object.