In most of our favourite science-fiction movies over the years it’s been tough to not fall in love with the idea of interacting with technology through speech. From speaking to the ship in Star Trek, interactive droids in Star Wars. In more recent times full relationships, seen romantically in the movie Her and in a more buddy sense through Tony Stark conversing with Jarvis in Iron Man.
Attempts to mimic such interactions with technology have become more apparent since the advent of the smartphone. The next step is requesting data such as directions when lost or sending a WhatsApp message by only using our voices. Android Wear and Apple Watches have brought this within reaching distance, but it’s far removed from the beginnings of hands-free.
In 1994, a company called Wildfire Communications developed an Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA) which could read messages, make phone calls and check your voicemails; the beginning of IPA on your phone. In 1997, Bury introduced a handsfree car kit with digital signal processor. It was a simple system where your phone sits into a cradle with a connector on the rear. This style was unchallenged until 2000, when Bluetooth became hugely popular, opening up a world of opportunity. A year later, we got our first Bluetooth hand free car kit with voice recognition.
Over the years, handsfree kits in cars have developed to the point where they have become as standard as having a radio. Eventually, most car users will have Bluetooth kits in their cars as standard or retrofit them as using your phone while driving became illegal in the UK in 2003 and other countries, including Ireland, soon followed suit. To increase the convenience, smartphone manufacturers began developing their Bluetooth connectivity by enhancing interaction with devices other then other phones. In the beginning, Bluetooth was essentially used by the common user to send and receive pictures and ring tones. It was then used for connecting to cars, and not only was it just so you could talk on the phone while keeping both hands on the wheel, but you could also play music in your car from your phone.
Skip forward a few of years to 2010, when we were first introduced to Apple’s Siri. Originally an external app that needed to be downloaded, Apple bought it in October 2010 and it became standard on iPhone’s from 4S and on. Apple are not alone as Google have Google Now, Microsoft have Cortana, and Samsung have S Voice and. Siri and Google Now are the dominating Intelligent Personal Assistants. It began with just being able to call and make texts, but has developed to the point where we can literally ask our phones or smartwatch anything and provided there is an internet connection, it’ll give us our answers. All this by just holding the home button. That wouldn’t be hands free though right?
Since iOS 8 you have been able to activate Siri through voice alone by saying ‘Hey, Siri’. In the recent Marshmallow update, you can now say ‘Ok Google’ and your android will recognise you have something to say and will listen, even on the lock screen. 100% hands free, unless you ask for assistance on the lock screen in which case you’ll need to unlock your phone to access the information.
Introduced in early 2013, Google released the Google Glass. Effectively it was a wearable computer, you click the side bar and swipe backwards and forwards to go through your timeline. By saying ‘Ok, Glass’, you activate the IPA. You can ask for directions or information and it comes up on a small display where regular glasses lens’s would be. But again, you stick need to swipe and scroll back and forth with your hands, a little bit hands free, but still not completely.
As the world was slowly becoming more advanced and every day user technology becomes more advanced, people wanted to be able to do more with as little effort as possible. We saw devices where the earpiece would sit in your ear and you could answer the phone, listen to music and audio books. Motorola released the Moto Hint. A slick design which sits in your ear comfortably and is less visible, particularly for people with long hair passed their ears. It conveniently comes with a charger that acts as a key ring, so you can have it all the time and use it when needed. By just saying ‘OK, Google’, you can ask for directions, ring someone, write a text, without even touching it. This is a new era of hands free technology. The only time you really need to use your hands is to put it in your ear.
More recently we saw Sony’s new product, the Xperia ear. A similar product to the hint. But it can also be used with other apps. Also, if you put it in in the morning and have it connected to your phone, it’ll update you on weather, news and any calender events such as meetings, all fully customisable to your interests. It’ll also tell you all the notifications you got during the night. And, since it’s Sony, you can play music of course. But again, it all starts with a single touch to get it started. We can’t be too picky about having to turn devices on. We can’t expect them to be on constantly waiting for our every command. These are impressive pieces of tech, and if you’re too lazy to turn the device on, odds are you won’t need it because you’ll just be a couch potato at home with your phone or laptop on you at all times anyway.
But is the world ready for hands free? Are we ready to move on from our smart phones and get make calls and texts from voice commands? Get the news told to us rather then read it? Even have cars drive us from one place to another? Probably not. Intelligent Personal Assistants have been around for awhile now, and I still don’t see people using voice command on their phones on a daily basis. We prefer to search for things privately. Call people without others knowing who it is and send private text messages.
It might work for things such as commanding a TV on or off if you’re willing to have it on standby mode 24/7. Or maybe calling someone while you drive you car. However wearing an ear piece 12 hours a day and talking to it might be a bit futuristic for us yet. I don’t mean 100 years in the future, but perhaps only 20, 10, even 5 years if technology continues to grow at the rate it is. Until then, I’m happy enough using my phone for these everyday tasks for the sake of having to actually pick up my 150 gram phone and type for 5 seconds.