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A voice-controlled future is finally upon us

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Science fiction writers and futurists have long imagined a world in which we control everyday devices with our voice. But that world is nearly upon us, with the latest evidence being Thursday’s New York Times piece indicating that the long-rumored Apple iTV would include Siri-enabled voice controls.

To be fair, Apple won’t be first in bringing voice-controlled TV apps to market: Google TV’s remote app (s GOOG) allowed voice controls more than a year ago, and the next update to Microsoft’s Xbox Live (s MSFT) will include Kinect-enabled voice controls when it goes live in late November. But Apple’s introduction of Siri as an integrated part of the user interface could take the concept well beyond how we’ve come to think of voice control to this point.

If Siri does emerge as an integral part of the Apple iTV, it won’t be the first time Apple changed media consumption through the input device. The company also revolutionized the way people interact with content with the introduction of the touch screen on the first iPhone. While it might not have been readily apparent at the time, the ability to control iTunes — and later Apple TV — with the iPhone Remote app was the first step in changing the way people controlled media.

More remote apps have since followed, some of which worked directly with devices already in people’s homes and some of which use bridging technologies to do so. Service providers like Comcast (s CMCSA) and AT&T (s T) have introduced apps that connect with their proprietary set-top boxes, allowing people to search and browse channels, and set and update their DVRs through an easy-to-use touch interface. App makers like Peel, Dijit and Logitech (s LOGI) have extended that model to create universal remotes that integrate with IR blasters to control all the devices in one home.

With the introduction of Siri, it seems the touchscreen control could soon be replaced by voice controls throughout the Apple ecosystem. But consumer adoption voice control for an iTV or other Apple device is just one step toward a voice-controlled future for all sorts of other devices.

That will enable applications like whole-home automation — the ability to set heat, A/C and light controls — controlled by voice through a unified system. And with persistent connectivity of all these devices — the so-called “Internet of things” — users will be able to speak controls remotely into a phone or other device and have them carried across the network before being implemented in other locations.

This is all very Jetsons-type stuff, the kind of “they promised us jetpacks” future we’ve all been waiting decades for. And we’re finally on the cusp of realizing it. All of which is to say that while asking Siri to perform outrageous tasks and seeing what her response is seems like a novel joke today, someday soon it might not be so unusual to order her to bake you a pie and actually have it defrosted and ready made in the oven when you return from work.

20 Responses to “A voice-controlled future is finally upon us”

  1. Alex William

    Many of the comments regarding Microsoft are missing the point. This is not about voice recognition. It is about implementation of a service and integration. Siri will continue to grow and be integrated beyond the phone. Telling your xbox to play a dvd is not the same thing we are looking at here.

  2. A voice controlled TV? Sounds like a bad idea to me. I like to have my 5.1 pretty loud. And fighting for vocal supremacy with Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t a fight I’d like to have. And what happens when a character says something about turning off, will the tv set turn off? How many times will i have to say “no” when it ask you “are you sure?” throughout a very dialogue heavy movie :-)

  3. Omar Severino

    Should Google suit Apple based on the following ?

    “To be fair, Apple won’t be first in bringing voice-controlled TV apps to market: Google TV’s remote app allowed voice controls more than a year ago”.

  4. Phil Hendrix

    Related Research on Speech Recognition and Mobile Devices

    Ryan, timely update. This GigaOm Pro report might also be of interest – How Speech Technologies Will Transform Mobile Use,

    Here are two key excerpts from the report:
    1. The Ideal Speech-Optimized Mobile Solution (
    2. Framework – Prioritizing Opportunities for Speech-Enabled Apps (

    Dr. Phil Hendrix, immr and GigaOm Pro analyst

  5. Gigaom (much like Cnet) are all about apple and not about reporting. No matter what the story they will somehow relate it to apple or apple products or if it’s a comparison apple will invariably come out on top. Apparently apple invented everything in technology and when you use fact to illustrate that apple actually invented very little (having stolen most of it’s technical achievement from other companies) they argue that apples version is the only one that matter so you might as well say they invented it.
    My one question to the author is did apple pay you cash to write this blatently biased advertising or did they promise you and iphone 4

    • I’ve tried speaking in the most neutral, clear accent I possibly can and Siri still screws up 50% of what I say. I spent 5 minutes last night trying to get it to understand “cook” but it heard “cooked” every time. It’s worthless to me.

  6. I like how when apple comes out with something everyone thinks its revolutionary and will change the world. I don’t totally disagree, but voice controlled things have been around wayyy longer than siri. My android phone has a ‘Siri’ button (called a ‘genius button’) that I can talk into to send texts, get directions for things, etc. and my phone is about 2 years old. And get this: My android ‘Siri’ is powered by Dragon Dictation, which is made by Nuance. Guess what ‘Siri’ is powered by? Nuance! So really, I’ve had about the same things for like 2 years. But since Apple’s done it, its bound to abound.

    • Throwing in a feature is not enough.

      While voice interfaces are not new, the implementation makes a big difference as well. Apple has done the best implementation of voice interfaces in a product. It has thought of everyday use-cases and made the technology work for us.

    • macachuania

      Agreed – voice command systems looking for key phrases aren’t new at all. Heck, Apple developed a nice implementation in 1990 with “PlainTalk” ( I remember setting my Mac up so I could voice control a Usenet reader from bed. As an aside, one of Apple’s lead engineers on PlainTalk was none other than Kai-Fu Lee… who sparked that storm when Google lured him away from Microsoft in 2005 triggering the Blamer chair throwing incident?

      The problem was that, mostly, you had to remember a phrase exactly for the command to be understood.

      What’s Siri’s innovation? It does away with specific phrases linked to actions and attempts to understand what you’re trying to say. No way, no how will the old PlainTalk setup guess that by asking “Will I need an umbrella today”… I really mean “Computer, look up weather for today”. Even better, if Siri is stumped, it will ask you for clarification. Along the way Siri appears to be building a semantic database centered around… you. I’d guess you can imagine this line of development is just in its infancy. Exciting times ahead it seems.


  7. might be mocking you

    I hope Apple comes out with an oven or a microwave. People say that using a televsion remote is hard, but what if there’s no buttons at all? what if it one of those confusing dial things?

    Also, if I speak to inanimate objects, I find that I form personal relationships with them. I don’t see myself forimg a deep relationship with my phone or TV, but I think an oven might be my inanimate soulmate.

    Make my dreams come true, Apple.

  8. Hmm, surprise Redmond gets no love unless Cupertino does the same thing? Xbox 360 with Kinect has had voice control since it launched a year ago – in November 2010. I have been able to use my voice to control my Netflix and parts of my Xbox. Heck, now I talk to my Dance Central 2 on Kinect almost exclusively. This is all without the new Xbox dashboard when voice control will be expanded more throughout the Xbox. I even did a lot with my voice on my Windows Phone 7 since November 2010 – a whole year ago. Even Windows 7 on the PC has always had voice control. Microsoft has integrated voice control in its products but that does not seem to get notice. Only when Siri comes along from Apple do people think Apple has invented the best thing since sliced bread.

    • Microsoft’s voice control doesn’t have AI-driven natural-language operation to the extent that Siri does. That’s why “people think Apple has invented the best thing.”

  9. Kinect has had voice controls since it launched in November 2010. For example, for the past year I have controlled my Netflix on XBox using my voice. Yes, voice control is being expanded on the Xbox platform, but it was great this past year. Ditto the Windows Phone 7 for the past year. I guess people only recognize innovation from Apple and not when Microsoft has had it in its products for some time.