John Sci­acca The Con­nected Life: Voice Con­trol: The Next In­ter­face Fron­tier

Sound & Vision - - CONTENS -

As au­dio/video sys­tems have ad­vanced in per­for­mance, fea­tures, and ca­pa­bil­i­ties, they have also be­come in­creas­ingly more dif­fi­cult to op­er­ate. Back in the day, a TV was just a TV, with a sin­gle re­mote con­trol and about 13 chan­nels to nav­i­gate. You pointed the re­mote at it, and if it didn’t work, you changed the bat­ter­ies. A sound sys­tem had an in­put se­lec­tor to choose what to lis­ten to and a vol­ume knob to make the mu­sic louder or qui­eter.

Things rarely locked up or needed re­boot­ing be­cause there was no com­puter or mi­crochip to lock up or re­boot. There were no HDMI hand­shakes to deal with or copy pro­tec­tion schemes ca­pa­ble of ren­der­ing the whole sys­tem in­op­er­a­ble. Worst case sce­nario, some­one would press a Tape 2 Mon­i­tor but­ton or turn on Speaker B in­stead of Speaker A, and a sin­gle but­ton press nor­mally righted the ship.

To­day, the sys­tems I in­stall are of­ten in­cred­i­bly com­plex. The dis­plays are fed by mul­ti­ple sources from both in­side and out­side the house; the sur­round sys­tem can have up­wards of 11 chan­nels; and speak­ers are lo­cated through­out, driven by au­dio ma­trix switch­ers and mul­ti­chan­nel am­pli­fiers. In­ter­twined amongst this A/V gear are ad­di­tional sub­sys­tems like light­ing, se­cu­rity, sur­veil­lance, HVAC, and more, with the whole thing run by an ad­vanced con­trol sys­tem that re­places a table­top full of re­mote con­trols. Even so, get­ting a pic­ture on the screen or au­dio in a room can require mul­ti­ple but­ton presses.

More than ever, the con­trol in­ter­face needs to be in­tu­itive and sim­ple.

The gold stan­dard for this would be one that passes the babysit­ter or mother-in-law test. That is, some­thing so in­her­ently easy to use and un­der­stand that a guest user could come over and make it work…with­out hav­ing to read a lam­i­nated sheet of step-by-step in­struc­tions that sits on a cof­fee ta­ble by the pile of la­beled re­motes.

A near-per­fect ex­am­ple of this is Apple’s iphone and ipad in­ter­face. My daugh­ter, Au­drey, is not quite 22 months old, but she’s al­ready mas­tered the IOS in­ter­face. Once the screen is un­locked—a process she un­der­stands but has yet to mas­ter—she knows to swipe through mul­ti­ple screens and even em­bed­ded fold­ers un­til she finds the app (Youtube) she’s look­ing for. Once there, she swipes through videos, min­i­miz­ing and clos­ing ones that don’t meet what­ever cri­te­ria she’s cur­rently search­ing, press­ing the home but­ton to close the screen when she wants some­thing else.

This ethos was per­fectly summed up by Phil Schiller, Apple’s se­nior VP of world­wide mar­ket­ing in his re­cent in­ter­view with Bob Ankosko (avail­able at soun­dand­vi­ where Schiller said, “The most im­por­tant at­tribute, and the one we map all of our prod­ucts to, is user ex­pe­ri­ence: Apple’s leg­endary ease of use and the abil­ity to just plug it in and it works.”

Since the dawn of A/V, we have pri­mar­ily lived with but­ton press­ing as the most in­tu­itive user ex­pe­ri­ence. Press this but­ton, and some­thing will hap­pen: the vol­ume goes up, the chan­nel changes, the sys­tem turns off, etc.

It’s cause and ef­fect and, for the most part, ef­fec­tive and in­tu­itive. Pro­vided, of course, you know which but­ton to press.

But as we in­creas­ingly move be­yond sin­gle room to in­te­grated whole-home con­trol, but­ton press­ing is fre­quently no longer the most er­gonomic, and voice con­trol ap­pears to be the next fron­tier. This was es­pe­cially ap­par­ent at this year’s CES where voice con­trol demon­stra­tions were prac­ti­cally ev­ery­where. Whether Ama­zon’s Alexa, Google’s As­sis­tant, Apple’s Homepod, or Sam­sung’s Bixby, com­pa­nies are em­brac­ing voice for con­trol in a mul­ti­tude of ways.

Think of a fairly typ­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tion like turn­ing on lights and mu­sic for a party. You pull out your phone, un­lock it, open a con­trol app, nav­i­gate to light­ing, se­lect a light­ing scene, then nav­i­gate to au­dio, find and se­lect the mu­sic to lis­ten to, then add rooms where the mu­sic should play, then set vol­ume lev­els in each area. Phew. That’s a lot of but­ton press­ing. In­stead, all of that could be ac­com­plished by just walk­ing into a room and say­ing, “Turn on Party Mode” or the like.

I’ve had Alexa in­te­grated with my Con­trol4 and Lutron sys­tems for the past 16 months, and it’s great for many things. Like walk­ing into the house with my arms full and ask­ing Alexa to turn on the lights. Or head­ing over to the couch with drinks in hand and ask­ing Alexa to start Movie Time. Voice con­trol is also great for mun­dane chores like check­ing the weather, set­ting cook­ing timers, get­ting daily news, get­ting a drink recipe, or just query­ing ran­dom facts (“Where are the 2020 Olympics?”).

Voice con­trol cer­tainly isn’t per­fect yet. For ex­am­ple, Alexa of­ten tells me a device doesn’t ex­ist, isn’t re­spond­ing, or just ig­nores my re­quest al­to­gether. And in­ter­fac­ing with ad­vanced con­trol sys­tems re­quires spe­cific pro­gram­ming for each com­mand. Plus it isn’t ready for mul­ti­ple strings of com­mands in nat­u­ral speak like,

“Turn on lights in the kitchen, dining, fam­ily and break­fast room, and play some jazz.”

How­ever, voice con­trol in­te­gra­tion is still in its in­fancy, and the re­sources be­hind it and com­pa­nies driv­ing its de­vel­op­ment for­ward look promis­ing in­deed!

Com­pa­nies are em­brac­ing voice for con­trol in a mul­ti­tude of ways.

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