Is It Time For VUI?

I can not get enough of Star Trek. I loved The Next Generation, adored Deep Space 9, and even watched Voyager. Now Enterprise is the center of my Star Trek world. One thing Iive always wanted was to be able to talk to my computer and have it understand me enough to do useful work. Voice User Interface (VUI) on the Mac is not what it could or should be; ViaVoice, from IBM, works only in a few apps, MacSpeechis iListen covers more area but doesnit work in OS X, and Appleis own Speech Recognition software has the core capabilities to do some cool stuff but is too rudimentary to be used for more sophisticated applications and it really hasnit been significantly updated since OS 8.5.

The problem with VUI on the Mac, or for any consumer computer system for that matter, is that, like a GUI, the user is force to sit in front of the computer in order to use it. Microphones frees a person from typing in applications like ViaVoice, but that is just a tiny bit of the potential VUI has. My feeling is that, if Apple were serious about making the Mac the Digital Hub, then it should consider cutting the cable that ties us to our computers and forces to sit in front of them like some mass psychiatric experiment gone horribly wrong. Allow us to talk to our Mac without having to sit in front of them.

The hardware is available. Bluetooth offers close-range connectivity that has the potential to allow communication between digital devices and our Macs. What if one of those digital devices was a microphone that allowed us to talk to our machines and allowed the computer to respond? What if the microphone was a wearable device akin to the Star Trek communicators; I tap it to get the attention of the computer, I speak through a headphone/boom mic device, my Mac is running software which maps what I say to an action then responds appropriately. What if...

The Software is available too. Appleis Speech Recognition software still is very capable, though it is rather clumsy in OS X. Still, the software is useful enough to allow for some interesting applications. For instance, a shareware company called Ex-Cinder has created an app based on Apple Speech Recognition called Voice Commander that allows OS X users to use speech to control actions in games and other applications. Cool!

Appleis software is capable, and the hardware is doable, so whatis stopping Apple, or anyone, from creating the VUI that Captain Sisko used without thinking about it?

Actually, there are several good reasons why we wonit see this technology soon, unless Apple has been doing its homework. First, the protocol for a VUI standard should be set up. Apple could just do it and wait for the rest of the world to catch on, but if hardware and software vendors are to buy into VUI they will need to know how to make use of it in their apps and devices. There is Voice XML, which could be the basis of a standard on which Apple could base its VUI. As long as Apple sticks to industry standards, it could command and retain an industry leading role in this emerging technology.

Second, there is little data to support VUI. Imagine asking your computer for a weather report. If you use a GUI then youid get your weather report complete with maps that show rainfall amounts and wind speeds. You get this because the Web is setup to deliver visual content. If you asked your computer for the same report through a VUI the computer may understand what you want, and even go off and fetch it for you, but how does it handle the info that it fetched? Remember, you are not standing in front of a screen. You may be getting dressed and the computer is in another part of the house. Your Mac has to separate the ads and other superfluous Web site stuff from the weather data that you are asking for. Unless sites have a way of filtering out this extraneous fluff, like they do when you want to print an article, then your computer has a lot of work to do. So Web sites will have to sign up to whatever VUI standard and incorporate it into the data they provide.

Third, hardware has to be designed to be as unintrusive as possible, which means a lot time spent testing and retesting devices. Iid like something that I could wear, but then, what if Iim naked? How could I get VUI interaction if I have nothing to clip the receiver onto? I thought it might be nice to have microphones setup in your house, but that requires installation and may not work properly. Clearly thereis a lot of work to be done before a good VUI solution is ready for general consumption.

At times I feel like Avery Brooks in that IBM commercial where he asks, "Whereis the flying cars? I was promised flying cars!"

The flying cars may be a ways off yet but thereis no reason why we canit talk to our computers now. Come on Apple, listen up.

Vern Seward is a frustrated writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. Heis been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.