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Wednesday, 22 March 2017 15:22

Is voice the next user interface?

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Apple has Siri, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, and Google OK Google/Assistant. Now Samsung has put a very male cat — Bixby — among the pigeons.

Bixby hails from Viv, the AI start-up and creator of Siri that Samsung bought in October 2016. Viv says Bixby is a more extensive and powerful alternative to Siri.

This is not a review, rather a commentary on where Bixby has come from and why voice may be the best interface, especially for mobile use, but increasingly in the Windows’ world for personal computer use.

It is a fact that very few users regularly use voice commands and a testament to the relatively simple icon-based user interfaces of all mobile operating systems designed to cram as much functionality as possible into the home and subsequent screens. But what if you could simply say, “What is the weather today in Sydney” or “Open my email and read the main headings.”

Chances are, and this writer has experience with all digital assistants, “she” would come back with “Sorry, I don’t understand the question.” This is a fundamental human-to-machine interface problem that won’t be solved unless a neural interface can be developed that can filter out those tens of thousands of wandering, sometimes erratic thoughts. No, a touch on an icon is a definite request to do something.

Samsung has a conceptually new philosophy to tackle the problem: instead of humans learning how the machine interacts with the world (a reflection of the abilities of designers), it is the machine that needs to learn and adapt to us. The interface must be natural and intuitive enough to flatten the learning curve regardless of the number of functions being added.

With this new approach, Samsung has employed artificial intelligence, reinforcing deep learning concepts to the core of its user interface designs. Bixby is the ongoing result of this effort.

Bixby is a new intelligent interface exclusively on Samsung’s devices. Fundamentally different from other voice agents or assistants in the market, Bixby offers a deeper experience thanks to proficiency in these three properties:

Completeness

When an application becomes Bixby-enabled, Bixby can support almost every task that the application can perform using the conventional touch interface. Most existing agents currently support only a few selected tasks for an application and therefore confuse users about what works or what doesn’t work by voice command. The completeness property of Bixby simplifies user education on the capability of the agent, making the behaviours of the agent much more predictable.

Context awareness

When using a Bixby-enabled application, users simply call Bixby at any time and it understands the current context and state of the application and allows users to carry out the work-in-progress continuously.

Bixby allows users to weave various modes of interactions including touch or voice at any context of the application, whichever they feel is most comfortable and intuitive. Most existing agents completely dictate the interaction modality and, when switching among the modes, may either start the entire task over again, losing all the work in progress, or simply not understand the user’s intention.

Cognitive tolerance

When the number of supported voice commands gets larger, as iTWire found with Cortana at its launch most users are cognitively challenged to remember the exact form of the voice commands. Most agents require users to state the exact commands in a set of fixed forms.

Bixby is smart enough to understand commands with incomplete information and execute the commanded task to the best of its knowledge, and then prompts users to provide more information and take the execution of the task in piecemeal. This makes the interface much more natural and easier to use.

Samsung has found that adopting new ways to interact with devices requires a fundamental change in user behaviour. The inconvenience of learning a new interface, fun to use or not, usually reverts to the tried and tested touch interface – muscle memory.

It believes the key to success for Bixby is to reduce friction and make the experience significantly more rewarding than the existing interface. Bixby simplifies user education with new voice interfaces and makes using the phone even more seamless and intuitive.

For privacy reasons Bixby will be accessed via a button located on the side of Bixby-enabled devices. Confusion around activating a voice interface is a barrier. For example, instead of taking multiple steps to make a call — turning on and unlocking the phone, looking for the phone application, clicking on the contact bar to search for the person that you’re trying to call and pressing the phone icon to start dialling — you can do all these steps with one push of the Bixby button and a simple command.

There has been a lot of excitement and speculation about Bixby on the Galaxy S8. Samsung says it has a bold vision of revolutionising the human-to-machine interface, but that vision won’t be realised overnight. Ambition takes time.

Bixby is the first step on a journey to completely open new ways of interacting with your phone. At the launch of the Galaxy S8, a subset of preinstalled applications will be Bixby-enabled. This set will expand over time. Samsung plans to release a tool (in SDK) to enable third-party developers to make their applications and services Bixby-enabled easily.

Bixby will be gradually applied to all Samsung appliances. In the future, you could control your air conditioner or TV through Bixby. Since Bixby will be implemented in the cloud, if a device has an internet connection and simple circuitry to receive voice inputs, it will be able to connect with Bixby. As the Bixby ecosystem grows, believe Bixby will evolve from a smartphone interface to an interface for your life.

Bixby is at the heart of Samsung’s software and services evolution as a company. It is fundamentally and conceptually changing its attitude toward software and services and working hard on innovation throughout all aspects of Samsung’s mobile ecosystem. With the continued investment from Samsung in artificial intelligence, the possibility of what Bixby can become is fascinating.


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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