The future is voice control
iPhone users are already speaking to their mobiles via ‘Siri’. Voice technology is progressing fast, with car manufacturers taking it on board, writes DAVIN O'DWYER
FROM THE malevolent HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the helpful Kitt in Knight Rider, the computers and robots of our dreams for the future have one thing in common – they talk to us and, almost more importantly, they listen. That vision of holding conversations with sentient computers might seem like the preserve of science fiction but, amazingly, it’s a future that is already showing signs of having arrived.
At Nuance, the leaders in voice-recognition technology, they call it the “Siri effect” – people are asking questions of their iPhones in their millions, the first sign that voice-recognition technology is ready to go mainstream.
The firm has just opened its international headquarters in Dublin, creating more than 40 jobs and, judging from the technologies that Nuance is working on, this is a company poised to transform how we interact with technology – it’s not going to stop at smartphones, not by a long shot.
One of the most obvious applications for this advanced interaction paradigm is the car. At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference last week, the Cupertino tech giant announced the “Eyes Free” version of its voice-activated personal assistant, which will make it ideal for implementation in vehicles – BMW, General Motors, Mercedes, Land Rover, Jaguar, Audi, Toyota, Chrysler and Honda were said to be preparing to adopt the technology with an activation button on the steering wheel. Eyes stay on the road and hands on the wheel, rather than on the touch-screen device.
One notable absentee from the list of early partners with Apple’s “Eyes Free” scheme was Ford, which has been pioneering its own similar technology for a few years now. Recently, Ford and Nuance gave a display of some of the technologies they are co-operating on at Ford’s European research centre in Aachen in western Germany.
The event demonstrated the degree to which the automobile industry is betting on a voice-controlled future – the ability to choose music, get directions and reply to text messages, all things that people are used to doing with frictionless ease these days, becomes considerably safer when conducted via voice control.
Ford introduced its Ford Sync technology in its US models back in 2007, but will be introducing the integrated communications and entertainment system in European models only later this year. Built by Microsoft and powered by Nuance’s voice-recognition technology, it allows for an impressively futuristic level of engagement with the car. It’s not quite Kitt, obviously, but it illustrates the simple power, and promise, of voice control.