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By Wilson Rothman
Me: "Alexa, microwave oatmeal."
Alexa: "OK, at what temperature?"
Me: "I don't know."
Alexa: "Hmm, I'm not sure."
I'm trying out a new Amazon-branded oven that's designed to be easy to operate with simple Alexa voice commands.
While in many ways it is easy, and it can do some impressive things, it exemplifies the problems we encounter when we try to control too much with our voices. Does anybody know the temperature at which they microwave oatmeal? Or even that microwaves had temperature settings?
The oven does a lot -- it is also a convection oven and an air fryer -- but when I said "cook salmon," Alexa asked how much. I said a pound and was informed I can only cook "0.063 to 0.37 pound of salmon." And while I can easily turn ON the convection oven with my voice, I can't turn OFF the convection oven with my voice. (The oven itself doesn't talk; you command it using a nearby Alexa-powered speaker.)
Amazon says that many of the issues I encountered are being fixed in background updates, but it'll be a long time before conversations with voice assistants are wrinkle-free. It's almost like practicing a foreign language before a trip: You memorize certain phrases, but when you've used them up, you raise your voice and start gesticulating wildly.
I've replaced many light switches with Wi-Fi-powered ones; other lamps have connected bulbs. I have a talking speaker in many rooms, including bathrooms, and yes, the Christmas tree lights are connected to a smart plug. My family members all yell out commands to Alexa, and for the most part she obeys. But we keep it straightforward: Play this song, turn off these lights, set some timer or alarm.
The same can be said for how we interact with Siri on our Apple devices, or with the Google Assistant on the Nest Hub Max in our kitchen.
"Voice is at its best when you are able to do something quickly, in the flow of whatever you are doing," Ahmed Bouzid, chief executive of the voice-first software developer Witlingo and a former Alexa product head at Amazon, said in an email. The best interfaces should require less effort than the commands they are replacing.
In the case of Amazon's smart oven, Mr. Bouzid says he's skeptical: If you're cooking, you're near your oven anyway and you generally don't try to do other things while cooking -- so you might as well push the button.
The counterargument, from Daniel Rausch, Amazon's vice president of smart home, is that the oven has so many capabilities, no other interface can hold them: "If you tried to draw a chart of all the capabilities of those devices and wanted to put each on a button, you'd need a roadside billboard-size panel for buttons," he said.
So is that what voice assistants are meant to do, replace switches and search boxes? The companies behind these interfaces are constantly adding features to their assistants, some surprisingly revolutionary. There is a lot you can do now if you work at it. But due to a combination of factors, including privacy considerations, it still feels like we're in a rut.
Routines are a way to combine various actions into one string, so that a simple voice command like "I'm home" shuts off alarms, turns on lights, adjusts thermostats and maybe kicks on some smooth jazz.
In theory, this is cool; in practice, it's annoying -- because to set it up you have to sit there and think about all of the things you want to happen at once, and how to make it all happen.
Now, apps that control these interfaces provide suggestions -- often based on your own actions.
Apple's version of this comes when you download an app called Shortcuts. It isn't the easiest app to use, but if you open it and tap Gallery, then look at Shortcuts from Your Apps, you might find something useful. At night, I normally set three alarms -- "Wake Up," "School Bus Pickup" and "Train." Now, I can just say "Morning Alarms," and they are set for me.
But routines only solve the problem of too many buttons to push. Developers are also making these interfaces more conversational, allowing for follow-up questions. Maybe you say, "Turn on the porch lights," and that happens, then your assistant might suggest, "Do you want to turn on the patio lights, too?" Because that would make sense.
While both Amazon and Google do suggest actions, Amazon's "hunches" take it further: When you ask for the porch lights, it might say, "Do you also want me to play smooth jazz?" The question would be based around your (possibly unconscious) behavior: Often, when you turn on porch lights, you also fire up the smooth jazz.
Both Amazon and Google also allow you to momentarily do without a wake word. By enabling Follow-Up in the Alexa app and Continued Conversation in the Google Home app, you can wake your assistant, then keep asking questions without repeating the wake word. It also retains some of the context: "Alexa, what day is Christmas?" Then, after it answers, you say, "What about Easter?"
Apple's Siri does this in different contexts. The AirPods Pro now have an Announce Message feature, which reads messages and allows you to respond in a conversational way. Walmart's grocery-delivery app for iOS leverages Siri along with your shopping history, so you can more easily pick out items with just your voice, without memorizing key phrases.
Personalization and Privacy
What's really needed is a tighter bond between human and disembodied voice, analysts that I spoke to said. Personalization means recognizing who is talking and remembering their preferences. But that requires data collection, and lately we've grown more conscious of that.
"Privacy is in the forefront of consumers' minds. Companies like Apple have done a lot of work on improving it," Simon Forrest, principal analyst at Futuresource Consulting, Ltd., said. It has become more possible for devices to hold information on the device and recognize a particular voice when it requests a particular movie, for instance.
The Alexa app provides a separate smart-home device history that you can purge. Google also says it allows you to review and delete your history.
"We are across the board thinking how we can have as little data as possible while still improving the product for users," said Lilian Rincon, senior director of product for Google Assistant. For now, for quality reasons, most of what Google Assistant does requires the cloud, she said. However, "we have a desire to put more things on device."
Google's Pixel 4 phone is a remarkable example of this, as my colleague Joanna Stern demonstrated earlier this year. It can transcribe speech to text in real time using nothing but the silicon inside the phone. The iPhone 11 is also doing more without the cloud, such as rendering Siri's new voice, and even older iPhones use on-device processing to monitor your behavior and suggest actions based on it.
So why, with all this evolution, are we still mostly just setting timers and asking for tunes? Unlike a new icon in your favorite app, you can't really see what's new with voice assistants. The Alexa, Google Home and Siri Shortcuts apps offer loads of suggestions, as do the screen-equipped speaker devices that Amazon and Google sell. But it really hasn't been enough to train people up.
"One of the biggest problems we continue to have is the problem of discovery, especially for speakers -- letting you know what it is you can do," Ms. Rincon said.
Amazon's Mr. Rausch also acknowledged the discoverability problem, using Jeff Bezos' famous phrase: "It's day one at Amazon, definitely for Alexa and AI."
So what does day two -- or day 12 -- look like? Futuresource's Mr. Forrest says even a voice-first interface might incorporate technologies like gesture control and haptic feedback, like the tap of an Apple Watch on your wrist. He sees "hearables," aka supersmart AirPods, as a likely voice-first success.
Meanwhile, I'll be trying to talk this smart oven into cooking more than 0.37 pound of salmon.
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Write to Wilson Rothman at Wilson.Rothman@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 15, 2019 09:14 ET (14:14 GMT)
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