Will voice commands take over?

Our most recent addition of family gadgets is an Echo dot, the Amazon device that does all sorts of random things for you based on voice commands. I have been meaning to test it for some time, mainly with the objective to find ways of creating interesting learning experiences. My partner questioned its use but joined in with testing her skills.

We had some fun trying out the variety of Alexa skills that are currently available. Some launched successfully and some didn’t get further than Alexa saying that she didn’t know that one. On occasion our pronunciation caused a bit of confusion, our shopping list included Lacoste and shapes instead of liquorice and chips, which was funny. At least we still knew what we were after in the store.

She hasn’t quite grasped how to breathe between sentences when reading a page, it is all one continuous flow, which at times is a bit bizarre and takes away from your comprehension of what is being said. the Guardian newsflash was impossible, but the BBC news one was perfectly sound, so we reckon it had to do with a computer or a person reading.

One thing I like a lot about this technology that you can ask for research and other facts, whether she finds exactly what you are looking for is to be seen. The effort of a command starting with Alexa is ultimately easier than starting a google search and I wonder if children grow up with this technology around them, will they eventually prefer to ask a device rather than type something in. We already know that searching online has largely replaced going to the library for most of us. So maybe this is the next step.

When it comes to work-related applications it may not be so easy to have an open plan office with several of these devices talking out loud. But I can see for example learning happening at home via these kinds of devices. A bit like a personal tutor showing up in your room.

In my opinion, the use of more and more technology together is where we will all find ourselves in the near future. Mixed reality helping us navigate the real world and improve our skills and I think voice technology fits right into this mix. Currently, Alexa is great at information sharing, just like most devices she is learning and technology behind it adapting and evolving.

Augmented reality at the moment still suffers from the fact that it is an overlay with rather clunky interaction opportunity from real to augmented reality. Virtual reality effectively blanks out reality, so you need to be in a place where it is safe to engage with this. Voice technology, however, can be used without humans having to change much of our behaviours, so the level of friction for its adoption is lower. Headsets are part of our daily practice and can be the device of choice on the move together with our phone for now.

Comprehension of accents will be the biggest challenge here. Siri has had trouble understanding me since it was introduced to my phone and still hasn’t improved greatly, Alexa has trouble with my partner who is a non-native English speaker. In comparison, I think Alexa does a little bit better than Siri, but I reckon it is a matter of time before all of them get to a reasonable standard of comprehension.

We are playing with Alexa to see whether we can make games for it, that goes beyond simple trivia quizzes and maybe our gamification card deck can come with Alexa instructions and randomisation to help you design better experiences. From a design perspective, it is a case of distilling your messages into simple commands whilst maintaining a friendly and fun spirit.


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