From silent TVs to Talkies

Every now and then someone writes an article on whether Back to the Future II got its predictions right. Well, judging by the presence of voice activated TVs and remote controls at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, I think we can add a tick in the box to the TV that you talk to. But as a report by Leo Kelion on the BBC website has pointed out, it is not without its flaws.

Besides not recognizing all commands when the user doesn’t use the right words, just like we’re sometimes fooled into going up and answering the door when it’s really a knock on the door on the TV, so is the voice activation. Some technologies get around this problem by adding in a “wake-up” command to activate it, but the whole experience could hardly be described as natural language as we recognize it. It will be easier just to press a button on the remote.

What it does highlight is that voice activation is nothing without intelligence behind it to make the device think, reason and react. This is because automated speech recognition just transcribes words without understanding the meaning of the word in a particular context. Natural Language Interaction technology (NLI) in contrast uses language and domain specific language libraries to derive meanings of language as words and sentences.

In addition, NLI, provides advance dialogue management, enabling the user to describe what they want the device to do in their words, not a set routine that a manufacturer wants the user to follow. Intelligence could also be added to distinguish external commands from the sound of the TV.

But TVs weren’t the only devices that speech recognition had been added to at CES. Laptops, even applications in cars were being demonstrated or talked about having voice capabilities included. How successful they will be depends not just on the underlying intelligence to make the device think and react in a humanlike manner, but also whether it actually adds value to the overall interaction.

Just like 3D TVs, whether we think we need it or not voice activated TVs are on the way, and with still a few more years to go until 2015, the year that Doc sent Marty to in Back to the Future II, who knows what might happen in between.

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