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Home » News/Views

Siri: seriously

I’ve been a longtime supporter of voice recognition technology. It crystallized for me in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when Scotty tried to control the computer by speaking into the underside of the mouse. Everyone laughed at the scene. I laughed too, but my laughter was for a different reason. I knew that we were much closer to that reality than most people in the audience thought. I was covering technology in 1986 and voice-recognition was a big deal within the tech community. IBM and its competitors were spending millions developing the technology to do everything with voice from dictation to controlling robots in space.

I haven’t controlled a robot in space, yet. But I have done pretty much everything else using voice recognition software in one way or another. As my sight deteriorated I started depending more and more on the three pillars of the technology; voice-recognition, command-and-control and text-to-speech. During the last three decades, I’ve watched voice-recognition go from a system that costs thousands of dollars and was barely usable, even after weeks of training, to a piece of software that costs under $50 and understands more than 50 languages.

A lot of parallel technology had to come together to make this possible. Advances in chip technology made it possible to create very powerful, very small and most of all very inexpensive processors to be stamped out by the billions. Software tools have made it possible for a single developer to create complicated code in days. The same process, if it could’ve been done at all, would have taken a battalion of programmers and months of work to produce the same result. The ability to control my computer by voice has advanced to such a degree that I hardly use my keyboard and mouse. Scotty’s quote of “how quaint,” is very close to reality.

I am, obviously, constructing this post using voice. Without losing my place in this document, I instructed the software to find out what year Star Trek IV was released. I also searched for a YouTube clip of the scene in the movie to make sure that I quoted Scotty correctly. I edit by having blocks of text read back to me. I’ve been using the software long enough that my error rate is really low. It now filters out all the mumbling I do while trying to get my thoughts together. I now amuse myself by having the text read back to me with a British female voice. Words like “Lieutenant”, are pronounced with the British version of that rank even though it’s spelled correctly.

Now my question is why can’t I have the same level of voice control on my mobile device? I have an iPhone, so that’s the mobile operating system with, which I am most familiar. I have done enough reporting to know that android and Windows phones have their own versions of voice-recognition. The iPhone’s implementation is Siri and it does a remarkable job with some limitations. She, I clearly like female voices, has proved to be very useful and I use my iPhone’s voice-recognition program constantly. I’ve also come to rely on Voiceover which is Apple’s command-and-control and screen reader. Although Siri and Voiceover are an integral part of the IOS specifications, I can’t always get them to play nice together.

While I applaud Apple’s leading role in setting accessibility standards, it feels to me, as a newcomer with my own accessibility needs, that they’ve drawn the blueprint and hope that the contractor (app developer) will follow the plan. As someone, to stretch this analogy to its breaking point, who has to live in this new structure, to whom do I complain if things don’t work correctly?

‘m coming at this, not as a whiner, but as someone who’s done due diligence. The one thing I’ve learned over the years is that teaching yourself how to use new hardware and software can take you only so far. At some point in the process, you then need someone to sit down with you and teach you the basics. Websites and YouTube videos just don’t cut it. You need a human being to answer your questions. While waiting at an Apple Store for an appointment to revive my dead phone after in OS update, I stumbled onto a workshop on the new features of IOS 7. Several people wanted to know why they could no longer double tap to close background tasks. The new gesture was to touch the app and swipe up. I would’ve been really frustrated, when my phone was working again, if I hadn’t gotten that tip at the workshop.

Every time I have a problem with either Siri or Voiceover, I have to make an appointment at one of the Apple stores and hope that the person who is supposed to help me is knowledgeable about the accessibility functions. It’s a hit or miss proposition. There is supposed to be someone at the store who is considered to be an expert. But they never seem to be on duty when I’m there. I have been to every Apple Store in Manhattan trying to find out when there’s going to be a workshop on accessibility issues. For the past six months, I’ve checked in regularly at each store and spoken with the manager on duty as to when a workshop on any of the accessibility issues will be scheduled. They’ve all been pleasant and sympathetic but indicate that those kinds of events get scheduled higher up the food chain.

While I have my personal focus, I’m more concerned that, at least in the case of Siri, Apple has been promoting it as a mainstream app but doesn’t seem to fully support it. My research, again based solely on the New York stores, is that the closest thing to Siri training is the general “Discover Your iPhone” workshop. I’m a firm believer in mainstreaming niche apps for the general public, not just those of us with accessibility needs. Siri is a perfect example. It had all these great commercials with major stars doing all kinds of cool things with Siri. But I’ve yet to see a workshop specifically for Siri. A lot of reviews, since Siri was announced, focus on the lighthearted; funny answers to stupid questions.

I believe that there are things in Siri that need to be fixed. For example, I can ask Siri to find me the nearest subway station. She gives me a list of 15 stations near me with the closest one at the top of the list. But when she asks me if I want directions Siri often goes into a loop of continually asking if I want directions. If I asked for the nearest ATM machine, Siri will give me a list of 15 locations near me with the closest at the top of the list. Sometimes she gives me directions and sometimes she gets caught in the loop. I was once standing right in front of the bank and ask that question. I really wanted a snarky answer like “you’re standing in front of it, you twit”. Am I the only one with this problem? I don’t think so. With more training in the use of Siri more people will learn about her advantages and can then advocate fixing the limitations. And then we can move on to mainstreaming the other built-in accessibility apps.

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