The enthusiastic acceptance of Apple’s Siri, with its combination of speech recognition and natural language understanding, has demonstrated the practicality and attractiveness of a voice-enabled personal assistant user interface. Alternative voice-enabled personal assistants for mobile phones will be a big item in 2012.
The personal-assistant approach is a major paradigm shift that will spread to other devices and environments as well. Expect some offerings to allow text entry in natural language as well as by voice, so the personal assistant can be used when speaking is inconvenient.
But just what is a “personal assistant?” The paradigm involves much more than speech and natural language technology maturing to the point of practical usability. A key is that a true personal assistant application skips steps, delivering desired results quickly and compactly.
The small size of a mobile phone has driven a need for a shortcut by making conventional navigation to a result more inconvenient, but the problem has been growing on all digital devices – even PCs – as the number of applications and their features multiply and as the variety of websites available explodes.
The “understanding” part of the personal assistant is key; it allows skipping many steps otherwise required to complete a task. A well-executed assistant understands, for example, what applications will show you where a restaurant is and which websites will rate the restaurant. When you ask for a “good Italian restaurant nearby,” it knows to use the GPS feature of the phone in providing you the location and restaurant rating, skipping the conventional search paradigm of listing a number of alternative web sites that requires additional steps to complete the task. Asking for “today’s appointments” can use the calendar application without directly opening it, avoiding the need to navigate to the application and go to today’s date.
Clearly, the convenience of quick request entry and the shortcut to results drives user enthusiasm for the personal assistant approach. User enthusiasm, of course, drives the interest of companies that want to be connected to the user to adopt and strive to improve this approach, whether they be operating system vendors, advertising channels, phone manufacturers, enterprises, application developers, or phone service providers.
If user enthusiasm is not enough, there is additional motivation for adoption of the personal assistant model. The shortcut aspect will have a dramatic impact on advertising and other forms of monetization of services. Instead of a list of websites that have to be further searched, the customer is directed to options they can immediately act upon.
Control of the assistant can mean control of what preferred options are displayed in response to a request. There are opportunities to incorporate specialized assistant features that help one buy music or movies, for example.
And once individuals become comfortable with the personal assistant model, they will want it wherever there are many choices and where navigating those choices is inconvenient, e.g., with their TV and auto infotainment systems. Expect dramatic and rapid changes in how we interact with digital devices in 2012!