Apple's taking voice control to iPad, cars and Canada
Dear Siri, why do I need a mouse anymore?
Some day in the not-too-distant future, we'll all look back and laugh at the mice and keyboards that we've been using to control our computers.
These ubiquitous tools are becoming so much less pervasive with every passing month, mainly because new kinds of inputs are exposing them as the impractical and unnatural creatures they are.
Chief among the drivers of the new kind of computing control is Siri, Apple's voice-activated "personal assistant" for the iPhone.
At its annual Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco on Monday, the company announced it was expanding the popular feature not just to iPads and additional countries — including Canada — but also to cars.
Apple said that a number of automakers including GM, Toyota and Honda will integrate Siri into their vehicles in the next 12 months. Users will be able to activate the assistant on their phones by pressing a button on their steering wheel, whereupon Siri will be able to provide driving directions or suggest the nearest gas stations.
Canadians, meanwhile, will finally be able to take full advantage of the voice service when iOS 6, the iPhone and iPad update, comes out this fall.
Thus far, Canadian users haven't been able to use Siri for location-based queries, such as "Where's the nearest Italian restaurant?" or "How do I get to City Hall?"
A similar voice-dictation function is being rolled out in new Macintosh computers, which Apple said are shipping immediately. Users will be able to write emails or update their Facebook and Twitter statuses simply by speaking to their computers.
Voice coming of age
Voice-activated services have existed for years, but few have lived up to their early hype. Things are changing now as Apple and other tech giants, including Google and Microsoft, are making use of tools that learn as the data samples on which they're based grow and improve.
Most of the popular services, including Google's own dictation features for Android phones and Microsoft's Xbox Kinect plug-in for the Xbox 360 video game console, use machine-learning algorithms that study voice samples for patterns. The more samples gathered, the more accurate the service's results.
As a result, voice control is popping up in everything from phones and tablets to cars, video-game consoles and television sets.
About a quarter of iPhone users regularly use Siri, according to consumer tracking firm Nielsen. It's an impressive figure given that the feature has only been available since October, and it's only going to increase with the service's expansion to other devices and destinations.
Apple is also working on its own television set, which is likely to include Siri.
Apple popularized the touch screen with the launch of the original iPhone in 2007.
Since then, touch screens have become the de facto control method for a range of electronics, sometimes to the dismay of parents who end up cleaning fingerprints off their flat-panel televisions. Many young children, after all, have never experienced a screen that isn't touch-enabled.
At WWDC, Apple announced that it is further integrating this touch technology into its computers, with all new Macs coming with gesture-enabled touch pads. Scrolling through websites and documents will use the same swipe motions that control iPhones and iPads.
Three-dimensional motion and gesture control, popularized by Nintendo's Wii console and Microsoft's Kinect, are also taking off. While such controls have been hit-and-miss so far, they're improving by leaps and bounds.
A few weeks ago, San Francisco-based startup Leap Motion unveiled a video of its new gesture control sensor, which can track fine finger movements.
The device, which plugs into a computer and will be available later this year, urges users to "say goodbye to your mouse and keyboard." Judging from the video, Leap looks like a huge improvement in motion control.
When all of these new control technologies are put together, the mouse and keyboard start to look pretty dated, if not like outright wallflowers. Some adherents insist these old inputs will always dominate computing, but the suggestion is based on an old definition of the concept.
In the days of yore – say, in the 1990s – computing was defined as sitting at a desk and typing. Computing today, however, has spilled out into living rooms, the street and cars, to the point where it's ubiquitous.
When we ask Siri to suggest a movie to watch, or when we swing a controller in a game of Wii Tennis, that's computing. When we launch an Angry Bird with a swipe on our phone or when we start our car with a voice command, that's computing.
The mouse and keyboard may still be important when a desk is involved – and even that is disputable – but they're irrelevant in all of those other contexts.
In the grand scheme of computing, the old inputs are becoming bit players while voice, touch screens and gesture control from the likes of Apple and others are taking over.
That's a good thing, because it means our interactions with machines are becoming much more natural. After all, the human body wasn't built to sit at a desk.