What initially felt like a gimmick – the ability to tell your car, phone or TV what to do – has become quite useful. And voice recognition will only get better. By Gary Dell’Abate
For some people, voice recognition is too weird, too complicated, or just not good enough. I get it. My friend Matthew Berry, a fantasy football guy on ESPN, is in my phone as Berry. My wife’s name is Mary. I’ll hit the button on the steering wheel in my car to activate voice recognition and say, “Call Mary.” “Call Berry?” the car usually responds. “No, call Mary.” “Call Berry?” “No!” Now I’m yelling at my car, looking like an idiot to anyone who happens to see me. It’s frustrating. The most dialled numbers in my phone are my office, my sons and my wife. The car should know that.
Considering how amazing the technology is, this is a crazy complaint, but these innovations are so incredible that you just want more. Think about your first flip phone. Compare it with your iPhone now. You were so happy with that flip phone, but if you had to go back, you’d say, “This is archaic!” That’s what happens. When there’s a really good technology, you become greedy. Recently, I heard someone compare the current state of voice recognition with the classic video game Pong. Whoever invented Pong never envisaged Call of Duty, but that’s what it led to. Voice recognition now is so basic compared with what it will be. But it’s already amazing, and it’s going to be even more amazing soon. Here’s how I use it.
On my phone, all I have to do is hit the little microphone on the keyboard to write texts or emails. Saying “I’ll be there in 20 minutes” is so much easier than typing. You do have to proofread once in a while, but it saves me a ton of time. The only issue is how self-conscious I get while using it. If someone’s in my office and I dictate a text to tell my son “I just put $100 in your account; go buy those shoes,” it’s weird saying that in front of somebody. It’s not that I care that somebody knows. But it’s odd to yell your personal information. When possible, I dictate in my car.
The newest Apple TV has Siri, but not the Siri that we know from our phones. This Siri takes an already invaluable button on the US PVR, TiVo – the one that takes you eight seconds back when you press it – and improves it. With Apple TV, you can push the button on the remote and say, “What did he say?” It takes you back 15 seconds, replays the scene, and runs subtitles for those 15 seconds. That’s unbelievable. Somebody at Apple really understood what we need.
I’m a big, big Mets fan and previously I would get up, bleary-eyed, go to my computer, put in my password, and go to MLB.com. Now, I walk to my kitchen and call out,“Alexa” to activate my Echo speaker (pictured). Then I ask, “Who won the Nationals game last night?” It’s brilliant: “The Nationals were beaten by the Los Angeles Dodgers 4–2. They will play again tonight at 10:30.” Since you’re not staring at a screen as you wait for the answer, you don’t notice the time it takes to process your command. I’m usually distracted getting the milk out of the refrigerator.
Alexa has a sense of humour too. Once, just for fun, I said, “Alexa, you’re such a b—-.” She goes, “That’s not very nice.” I go, “Alexa, I’m sorry,” and she goes, “That’s okay.” Stupid as that exchange may be, it’s also frightening. I’m actually starting to have an emotional bond with a machine.
Three ways to talk to your devices better
01 – Know their limits
Simpler devices, such as voice-activated alarm clocks, only recognise specific programmed commands. “What time is it?” may work, but “What is the time?” won’t.
02 – Act natural
Speech apps are trained on actual conversation. If they can’t understand you, rephrase the question instead
of enunciating or pausing. Between. Each. Word.
03 – Check the connection
One bar of service might make a phone call, but it’s probably not enough for Siri to turn your voice dial into an action.
Gary Dell’Abate has been the executive producer of The Howard Stern Show since 1984. He can be heard on Sirius XM.
This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine