With that esoteric question, Siri was launched on the iPhone 4S in October 2011, ushering in the era of the virtual assistant app (and the arms race between these app developers). The genre has come a long way in the past year and a half, and virtual assistant downloads for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone have remained high as new functionality continues to be added. The popularity of these apps, at least in its infancy, can in part be attributed to the novelty of interacting with a phone that has now taken on humanistic qualities. The so-called “Easter eggs” — those hidden gems of personality, wit, and dead body disposal — drew many curious early downloaders (and were often the lead line in the media coverage of Siri and others).
But “novelty” is not where virtual assistants will ultimately be categorized. Novelty, as it’s said, wears off. Usefulness is a more lasting quality, so long as it evolves. These apps may always have a degree of playfulness to them, but most virtual assistant developers, including ourselves, want to bring more efficiency and proactive predictability to many of the things we already use. And that means going beyond smartphones.
This year figures to be a transitional one for virtual assistant technology. Yes, virtual assistant apps in our phones will continue to improve. They’ll understand our voices (and accents) better, they’ll be able to execute more functions, and they’ll probably even add a joke or two. But I predict we’ll begin to see, to varying degrees, more pronounced adoption of virtual assistants into other parts of our lives. Here are three:
1. Our cars
Virtual assistants in cars are gaining momentum, and we expect to see some major implementations in this space in 2013. Virtual assistants are a fairly intuitive choice to combine with cars: most new vehicles are already equipped with some form of internet connectivity, and voice-activated navigation and music selection are quickly becoming the norm. But if we have those, why do we need a virtual assistant? This is where I think the predictive power of virtual assistants will be hugely beneficial.
Consider hopping into your car. Instead of programming a route to your meeting, the assistant in your car knows, through integration with your schedule, that you’re probably headed to a downtown office. The assistant can take over from there – everything from directions, to finding available parking, to finding your client’s phone number when it appears you’ll be running late. Other applications of a car virtual assistant could deal with your vehicle directly, such as your assistant letting you know you’re having engine trouble or are due for an oil change (and, of course, bringing up the best nearby places to get one, which could be read to you aloud and sorted by Yelp reviews).
2. Our houses
After cars, our homes figure to provide an ample playground for virtual assistants. Some devices (like, say, our television) will probably be faster to adopt an embedded virtual assistant than others (like, say, our toaster…although don’t that count out). Again, the key to staying power will be efficiency, not novelty. So, how can a virtual assistant help your television? Because it knows more about the complete you than your TV ever has. From your upcoming calendar, your assistant could know that you have a vacation to Spain next month. It proactively asks if you’d like to watch or record a documentary on the running of the bulls. Beyond TV, appliances like ovens and microwaves or home infrastructures like lighting or HVAC, could see virtual assistant technology begin to play a role. As with cars, in addition to the predictive benefits of virtual assistant technology, it’s worth noting that this coming technology gives a “soul,” so to speak, to these otherwise utilitarian machines, appliances, and gadgets.
3. Our eyes
Augmented reality and virtual assistants go hand-in-hand. And, in my opinion, the most interesting application of these two technologies meeting comes with Google Glass, an exciting project that’s starting to pick up steam (and media attention) after Google founder Sergey Brin was spotted wearing the spectacles on a New York subway last month. The special glasses would use a natural language interface to help the user react and learn about the world in front of them, like engaging in video chats, getting information about where you are, or taking photos. Because reaching into your pocket to use your phone for that stuff is so 2012.
It’s going to be an exciting year for virtual assistants. I hope that you’ll not only never stop loving the assistant on your phone, but also find utility in the virtual assistants that will soon be available in other parts of your daily lives.