Talking to our technology isn’t necessarily a new thing. In fact, if you count cursing at a malfunctioning piece of equipment, talking to technology has been around since man invented the wheel and the damn thing ran over that poor caveman’s foot.
But if you’re talking about the ability to actually interact with our technology using our voice, that has been solidly in the realm of science fiction since the days of early Star Trek episodes. However, voice recognition has been something developers have been working on since the 70s, and voice dictation packages such as Dragon Naturally Speaking has been around since the late 90s. Since then, to a degree, we’ve had the ability to talk to our hardware and manipulate its functions using voice input.
Of course things really began to change in the mainstream with the release of Siri for iOS in 2010. The notion of Virtual Assistants hit a wide audience and set the stage for the current explosion of digital assistants.
So Just what is a Virtual Assistant?
Simply put, a virtual assistant is a software agent that can perform tasks or services for an individual. As of 2017, the capabilities and usage of virtual assistants are expanding rapidly, with new products entering the market. An online poll in May 2017 found the most widely used in the US were Apple's Siri (34%), Google Assistant (19%), Amazon Alexa (6%), and Microsoft Cortana (4%).
The first tool enabled to perform digital speech recognition was the IBM Shoebox, presented to the general public during the 1962 Seattle World's Fair after its initial market launch in 1961. Not bad when you consider that this early computer was developed almost 20 years before the introduction of the first IBM Personal Computer in 1981, and was able to recognize 16 spoken words and the digits 0 to 9.
The next milestone in the development of voice recognition technology was achieved in the 1970s at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with substantial support of the United States Department of Defense and its DARPA agency. Their tool "Harpy" mastered about 1000 words, the vocabulary of a three-year-old. About ten years later the same group of scientists developed a system that could analyze not only individual words but entire word sequences enabled by a Hidden Markov Model. These early virtual assistants, which applied speech recognition software, were automated attendant and medical digital dictation software.
In the 1990s digital speech recognition technology became a feature of the personal computer with Microsoft,IBM,Philips and Lernout & Hauspie fighting for customers. In 1990, Dragon launched its software package Dragon Dictate, the very first consumer speech recognition software package. Of course, with a hefty price tag of $9000, there weren’t many consumers that were able to afford the luxury of being able to afford it, not to mention that the software was still not able to determine the boundaries between words when faced with continuous word dictation. It wasn’t until 1997 that Nuance was able to crack some of these limitations and Dragon Naturally Speaking version 1.0 was released for Windows 95. Over the past 20 years, Dragon Naturally Speaking has continued to dominate the voice recognition market, and the technology has been continually built and improved upon with each subsequent version and must be considered as one of the trailblazers in the realm of speech recognition.
It wasn’t until the advent of the smartphone that the idea of a readily available, mainstreamed digital assistant began to take form. The firstmodern digital virtual assistant installed on a smartphone was of course Siri, which was introduced as a feature of the iPhone 4S on October 4, 2011. Siri was actually originally the product of Siri Inc. until Apple acquired the company in 2010 and began developing it internally. The rest, of course, is history. Microsoft, Google, Amazon (and indeed many other less well known companies) quickly raced to catch up and build upon what Apple had created to create the current marketplace of Virtual Assistants that use speech recognition as its primary input method.
How Do Virtual Assistants Work?
While voice recognition does serve as both their main and marketable input method, it should be mentioned that most also allow for text interfacing as well. For example, the Google Assistant can be accessed by voice using the Google Home smart speaker, but can also be utilized by text chat using the Google Allo app.
The Virtual Assistants use natural language processing (NLP) to match user text or voice input to executable commands. Many continually learn using artificial intelligence techniques including machine learning. In order to explain this further, not only would the author of this Blog need to take an extensive computer science program, but it’s likely the reader may need to as well in order to follow the dense terminology and heady technological concepts that would inevitable start to be throw around. Suffice it to say that it’s through complicated algorithms and study of the way that humans communicate that these processes can continue to be refined, making the Virtual Assistants ‘smarter’ and able to respond and interact in more and more natural, conversational ways.
To activate a virtual assistant using the voice, a wake word might be used. This is a word or groups of words such as "Alexa" or "OK Google". Once the device is ‘woken’ (usually signaled to the user either by a audible tone or a flashing of lights on the unit),the user may issue their command or inquiry.
Where Do We Find Virtual Assistants?
Virtual assistants may be integrated into many types of platforms or, like Amazon Alexa, across several of them. Some of the more popular entries these days are integrating them into Smart Speakers, as found in the Amazon Echo product line, Google Home, and more recently the Apple HomePod. Of course they are also built right into the mobile OS of many devices such as Apple’s Siri in iOS and Google Assistant in Android -- not to mention Desktop OS such as Windows 10, with Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana now taking up residence on millions of home PCs. They are even showing up on smartphones outside of the OS, such as Samsung’s Bixby which is featured on the newer models of their Galaxy and Note smartphones.
OK, So They’re Everywhere … But What Can They Do?
So finally, after all that, we get down to the interesting part of the post. These virtual assistants can provide a wide variety of services, and particularly those from Amazon and Google are growing by the day. It’d be difficult and futile to try to list them given that new functionality and refinements are being added all the time, but some of the more popular services include:
- Providing information such as weather, news, or traffic
- Providing facts from Wikipedia or IMDB
- Set alarms, make to-do lists and create appointment reminders
- Play music from streaming services such as Spotify, Google Play Music, or Apple Music
- Play radio stations
- Read audiobooks
- Create appointments or events in your calendar
- Play videos, TV shows, or movies on Televisions
- Manipulate home automation devices
- Make phone calls (only certain models have this ability at the moment)
Of course, this list is just the tip of the iceberg. All the virtual assistants on the market today continue to be developed, with new features and abilities being added as the technology continues to be refined. The ability of these smart speakers to be able to make phone calls, for example, only arrived months after they first came to market and there doesn’t seem to be any signs of things slowing down as the virtual assistants that power them continue to evolve.
So How Can They Help With Accessibility?
When it comes to using the various Smart Speakers (Google Home, Amazon Echo, Apple’s HomePod to name a few), there are actually quite a few ways in which these devices can enrich an environment accessibility-wise. Remember, these devices have no screens and interaction with them is strictly through voice commands -- so those with visual impairments, for example, would be on a level playing field as everyone else in terms of how to access their features. Almost anything you may normally look up on your phone using a screen reader could be done using voice commands and interactions. They can be used to command a music library, check on news or weather, act as support in the kitchen (setting timers, converting measurements or giving step by step recipe instructions)), or even looking up map routes, all without needing to navigate a visual interface.
Home automation is of course another way in which these virtual assistants could have a huge impact on an accessible home. These devices can be tied into a home automation environment where they could be configured to be able to do things like turn on TVs, control the thermostat, open blinds, lock doors, turn on lights, or otherwise control any number of Smart devices. This of course can prove especially helpful those those with physical access challenges who may need voice control in order to control their environment. It should be noted of course, that home automation at this level also requires additional hardware (such as a Hub) and of course the compatible devices such as Smart TVs and appliances, light bulbs, thermostats, etc.
So Which One Is The Best One For Me?
Well as with most questions like this one, the answer is .. it depends. Each Smart Speaker and Virtual Assistant have their own strengths and weaknesses, so depending on how you’ll be using it or what features are most valuable to you will dictate the answer.
For example, the Google Assistant has the power of the Google Search Engine and Google Maps behind it which makes it unrivaled in its ability to search inquires accurately. Alexa, on the other hand, uses Bing so its results may not be quite as accurate. On the other hand, Alexa has been on the market longer and has a bounty of “skills” which make it a bit more robust over its competitors when it comes to Home Automation. The Apple Homepod comes with a hefty price tag but its high end audio capabilities make it the the logical choice for audiophiles already in the Apple ecosystem who have extra money to spend.
So to answer the question fully would be an article in and of itself, and there have been plenty of comparison guides written. The best advice would be to read up on each of the respective Smart Speakers on the market today (Google Home, Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, just to name a few) and see what each of their strengths are and how that compares to your particular wants and needs in a virtual assistant.
OK, You Sold Me On Getting One -- How Much Are They?
Well, the good news is that Smart Speakers are available in several makes and different models and you should have no problem finding one that will fit your budget. The Google Home Mini and Echo Dot are among the most inexpensive, coming it at around $79 US while Apple’s HomePod is a hefty $350 US. The Home and Echo fall somewhere in between, priced at around $129 and $99 respectively.
What About Privacy Concerns?
One final note we should mention. You’ve probably heard about this by now but there was some consumer outcry about the fact that these Smart Speakers are technically always listening (waiting for the ‘wake words’ that will activate them) to what’s happening in the environment. Once those wake words are spoken, a recorded clip of the voice command is sent to the cloud where it’s processed by some server and the information is relayed back to the device. So yes, these recorded clips are stored on a server somewhere, but both Amazon and Google are pretty transparent about the information they have stored. You can see exactly what voice commands you’ve given your device and can choose to delete your cache of voice commands that they have stored if the idea of some corporation having any of your voice clips creeps you out.
It should also be noted that most of the devices also come with a ‘mute’ button, which essentially turns them off and prevents them from listening to anything, including the wake words. So if you’re hosting a secret meeting of the Illuminati in your living room and want to be completely off the record, you have that option, but it’ll essentially turn your Smart Speaker into a glorified paper weight.
While Smart Speakers and Virtual Assistants may have entered the market as novelties, as the technology has gotten better and their abilities have grown, their place in our lives as a useful productivity tool has been cemented. This also includes their role as a very valuable piece of Assistive Technology and yet another example of how mainstream products can also serve an important role in the accessibility world.