Digital Assistants Lend Human Feel to the IoT
With helpers like Siri, Cortana and Google Now, navigating the Internet of Things gets a little less daunting.
In today's increasingly mobile, connected world, we're literally living and shopping among the Internet of Things, or IoT -- a cumbersome endeavor at times given the number of apps many of us use to keep up to date and in touch across multiple devices. But digital assistants are coming to the rescue.
I'll use myself as a case in point. As a frequent traveler, I've loaded my tablet with apps from Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott, as well from as United, American, and AirTran -- and I still have a problem keeping up without TripIt (yep, another app) to make sure reservations all end up on my calendar where I can find them.
Last week, I discovered a curious thing. Cortana, the voice assistant on my Windows Mobile-powered Lumia 1020, read one of my e-mails and then asked if I wanted "her" to track a set of three connecting flights, each with a different airline, to a remote international location. Intrigued, I said, "Yes." Cortana then proceeded to give me real-time updates when the flights took off and landed.
This experience reinforced a notion I wrote about back in August, that being that the voice-activated digital assistant on your personal device can be a nearly human interface to the IoT (read 'Cool Stuff' at SpeechTek 2014). Siri, Cortana and Google Now leverage voice recognition technology to help complete tasks from the mobile devices on which they live as native apps searching for information on the Internet, tracking the weather, telling jokes, and more.
Digital Assistants Come Home
These capabilities are moving into other devices as well. Earlier this month, for example, Amazon announced impending availability of Amazon Echo, its take on the personal digital assistant. This device, a 9.25-inch tall cylinder, is a homebody compared to your smartphone. As you can see in the video below, it delivers digital assistance from your bedside table or living room bookshelf, finding music playlists, setting alarms, keeping your to-do list, and searching for answers to questions like, "When is the next full moon in New York City?" or "How do you spell vacuum?"
Other companies, in their rush to capture business in a mobile moment, are developing their own digital assistant capabilities to make it easier for customers to interact with them, buy their products, and use their services. For example, Domino's Pizza has created "Dom," a virtual personal pizza assistant who will take your order and deliver it to your door using natural language -- even suggesting the Chocolate Lava Cake as the perfect pairing with your Italian Sausage and Pepper Trio pizza.
Online banking has been around for years, and it gets easier (and hopefully soon more secure rather than more worrisome) every time I visit a site. I remember being amazed the first time I could simply stuff a stack of bills or a check into an ATM without an envelope or deposit slip, a moment only topped when I took a picture of a check at home and saw my bank balance go up without leaving my kitchen! Interactions Corp. is working on a conversational paradigm to make banking customer interactions via automated systems more natural, blending online and spoken communications with natural language recognition. Its demo at FinovateSpring 2014 in May showed a natural conversation across multiple products and inquiries progressing with no human agent involved.
Smart solutions are helping people interact with the most familiar things in their lives, like their homes and cars, as well. Lockitron, for example, offers a simple app that allows you, or a trusted associate, to lock and unlock doors or gates from a mobile device. More complex home security solutions, like AT&T Digital Life, take such capability to the next level, letting you secure and manage not just the doors, but also the lights, heating/air conditioning and cameras in your home.
Who doesn't have a remote lock/unlock/alarm key fob for their car these days? They are as common as fleas on a hound, but what if you had all that plus the ability to check fuel level and tire pressure, verify the location of your vehicle and send directions to it, or use your mobile device to activate the alarm remotely when you're beyond the range of your key fob? Many telematics solutions provide all this today, including GM's OnStar-based RemoteLink Mobile App.
Speaking a Common Language
In the real world, you can't just talk to things -- sometimes you actually need to speak to other humans. Readers may be thinking, "Duh, that's why Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in the first place." But what if that other person doesn't speak the same language as you? The capability to deliver real-time translation service (like the Universal Translator used on Star Trek) is becoming a reality today. Imagine a transmission repair shop in a rural area that gets a customer who doesn't speak the same language as the shop staff -- apps like these turn those moments into revenue opportunities instead of frustrating, confusing and generally unprofitable interactions.
SpeechTrans, for example, offers a speech-to-speech translation app that uses a Bluetooth-connected wristband (which also can act as a watch and Bluetooth speakerphone) to enable bilingual communications via a smartphone -- even with emergency response personnel. Microsoft promises this capability via Skype voice calls and instant message conversations in the near future as well. In May, Gurdeep Singh Pall, Microsoft corporate vice president for Skype and Lync, demonstrated a pre-beta version, available as of Nov. 4, that translates in 45 languages.
In today's fast-paced world, many of us need to be connected to things as diverse as the Internet, our cars, a soda machine or a bank as well as to people ranging from friends to business associates to subject matter experts we've never before met. Today digital assistants help us with contacts, calendars, and real-time communications. Tomorrow they'll help us find and connect users to more useful information, topical experts and distant friends faster than ever.
What will we do without them!