In the short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains”, Ray Bradbury paints a rather grim picture of a house of the future whose family has gone. In the story, the house continues on cooking, entertaining, and cleaning for a family that is no longer there. Bradbury certainly had a vision of the future that could give you a minor case of the chills.
It turns out, though, that we live in the future, and it is nowhere near as grim as Mr. Bradbury might have thought. As Amazon continues production of the Echo and with Google fresh off the launch of Google Home, it appears that voice control is the home trend of tomorrow.
We’ve seen the commercials, watched as Alexa and Google turn lights on and answer questions on the spot, and said: “Wow, that’s amazing!”. And with about a quarter of homes looking to add smart home tech in the next year, it may not be long before voice control is part of yours.
Where did Voice Control come from?
Of course, this tech has been around, at least in theory, since the beginnings of modern sci-fi.
Iron Man had Jarvis, Star Trek had the Enterprise, and Dr. David Bowman had HAL.
For as long as we’ve had computers, we’ve dreamt of how far we could push them. How sophisticated they could actually be. But how did we get from science fiction to here?
In the 1950’s, the Audrey program could recognize speech, but only in digits. From there, voice recognition grew and evolved through the Harpy system, which had the vocabulary of a human three-year-old. Then to Dragon NaturallySpeaking in the 1990’s, the grandfather of modern day Siri.
These programs continued to lay groundwork into the early 2000’s, but only ever performed at about 80% accuracy, and it was widely noted that while many phones had some sort of voice recognition software, it was clunky and more a source of frustration than a convenience. How many of us remember the original voice-to-text and having to proofread it after inputting? Not exactly a picture of convenience.
It has only been very recently, with the introduction of personalized recognition in the interface of modern smartphones, that voice recognition has come far enough to be truly practical for home and personal use.
Voice Control in the Home
With Alexa and Google already dominating the home voice markets, what does all this mean for future home automation?
Voice control already offers substantial benefits. If you have a smart home, Alexa or Google can turn on your lights, lock your door, or adjust your home temperature. Instead of turning to a computer to look something up, we can just ask our own AI assistant to look it up for us, and she will return, seconds later, with the answer.
We build voice-activated virtual assistants unparalleled in terms of convenience, and the tech already improves lives in myriad ways.
However, the systems have a few hitches but plenty of room to take it further.
Home voice control can’t turn on just any lights or adjust any thermostat. These components have to be compatible with the system and hooked in. This can require an overhaul of the systems already in place in your home.
If you aren’t already in a so-called “smart home”, you would have to upgrade or modify certain aspects of your home to take full advantage of what this tech offers.
Voice Control Going Forward
This technology, in its current iteration, is not without its hiccups.
While the systems themselves are relatively affordable, upgrades to make a home compatible can get a bit pricey, and there isn’t a huge amount of flexibility in terms of voice search features.
However, is shows significant promise for even bigger and better capabilities going forward.
More homes are being built with smart home technology already integrated and ready for a voice recognition system. And for homes that are not already equipped, tech companies are working on lower cost solutions.
Utilizing self-contained interfaces, versus a cloud-based ones, companies like Savant may reduce latency in voice control response time.
Hubs, similar to wireless routers, show promise in being able to truly and wirelessly connect an entire home, from lights to locks to appliances, making a home completely automated. You might still have to get off the couch to make yourself a sandwich, but at your command, your refrigerator would be able to add sandwich ingredients to the grocery list, or, if you’re feeling truly lazy, it could order a sandwich for you and have it delivered.
The Name of the Game is User Experience
The major tech companies have also begun moving toward making the entire interface smoother and more intuitive, able to interpret and execute commands with more flexibility and efficiency. For instance, if you find yourself needing to make a phone call to a business not saved in your contacts, Alexa can’t help you without significant help from you.
In the future, however, it may be possible for these systems to analyze your past preferences. Then they can make choices based on what it knows about your lifestyle.
Despite the hiccups, which you’ll find in all new tech during its early versions, the technology already shows massive promise.
Within the next few years, consumers should expect to see other tech companies, such as Apple, joining the fray with their own voice and smart home systems, as well as more sophisticated home tech that integrates more seamlessly with voice recognition technology.
Contrary to what Mr. Bradbury may have believed, the future, and the future of voice control is looking pretty fantastic.