Apple’s Siri voice assistant has made consumers enthusiastic about using a Voice User Interface (VUI) to interact with their mobile phone. Siri has created a good impression on the user with natural language processing which makes it possible for the user to say ‘anything,’ as if they are talking to another human. Siri also has a ‘personality’ and sense of humor. Apple has done a good job marketing Siri as a personal, easy to use voice assistant, but Siri is not the first voice assistant on a mobile device. Google has had a voice assistant application called ‘Voice Actions’ that runs on the Android platform since August 2010.
About Voice Actions
Voice Actions allows the user to say specific commands to get things done such as sending text messages, sending email and listening to music. However, Voice Actions lags behind Siri in several areas. For example:
- Voice Actions does not have the Artificial Intelligence capabilities that Siri has to provide ‘intelligent’ answers to questions that are not related to the commands it knows.
- Unlike Siri, Voice Actions has no Text To Speech (TTS) capabilities to ‘speak’ back to the user.
- Voice Actions is also unable to have a multi-step ‘conversation’ with the user like Siri.
In response to Siri, Google is planning to make major enhancements to its Voice Actions application. This effort is called Majel.
About the Majel Theory
Majel comes from Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, better known as the voice of the Federation Computer from Star Trek. The approach that Google is supposedly taking for Majel is to make everything on your phone voice aware. It is like the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek where you can use a VUI to interact with practically anything on the ship. Majel is not attempting to give the user the illusion that it is interacting with a ‘human’ but instead it will be clear that you are interacting with an intelligent computer. This is in contrast to Siri, where Apple has put in a lot of effort to give a ‘personality’ and a sense of humor to the responses you get from Siri.
When Will Majel Be Released?
Google was supposed to release Majel in 2011. However, with 2011 over now, a more realistic release time is either this month or next. The first release is supposedly going to be a simple natural language processing engine where the answers will be obtained from a Google search. More advanced features such as controlling phone actions and other applications are expected later in 2012.
What is the Vision for Majel?
Matias Duarte, the computer-interface designer and user-experience lead for Android, in an interview with The Daily Beast said, “Voice is absolutely going to be an essential part of user interfaces. I mean Google and Android have been working on Voice for years. Even in Ice Cream Sandwich we released significant improvements to the way Voice dictation works. What I think is going to be interesting about Voice is trying to treat Voice as something that is universally accessible in every application and not confine it to just a gimmick or something you only use when you are in the car or on the go.
I really want computers to be multimodal. When you watch a science fiction show like Star Trek, someone walks up to a wall and starts touching things and speaking to a computer at the same time. That’s the way that I think our interfaces need to evolve. You need to be able to start using email, touching things on screen, speak to it, touch more things, and not really have to think about ‘am I using Voice now or not using Voice.’ You just use the computer input that is most natural at that time.”
Matias is proposing a fascinating multimodal interaction that will be accessible from anywhere on the mobile device and let the user naturally augment her experience through voice interaction. We will have to wait and see if Google follows through on this vision for Majel, but the idea is certainly very compelling.
Will you use Majel when it is finally released? Does it make a difference if the VUI sounds like a human, like Siri, or like a computer, as Majel will? Let us know below!
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