Smartphones may loosen their grip over family life as voice devices rise – USA TODAY

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SAN FRANCISCO — The smartphone’s grip over our every moment may be slowly loosening as digital assistants leap into speakers and other devices that bring the Internet into the public sphere.

So far, the field belongs to Amazon’s Echo and its voice-activated assistant Alexa. An early hit since it became widely available a year ago, it is still in only a sliver of homes. But its interactions, distinctly different from smartphone use, have caused academics to take notice.

“When you talk to Alexa and she answers, everyone in the room can listen. There’s nothing personal or private about the Echo,” said Julie Kientz, a professor in the University of Washington’s department of Human Centered Design and Engineering in Seattle. “It’s definitely a paradigm shift.”

Since the advent of the BlackBerry in 1999 and then the iPhone in 2007, we’ve come to accept that often using technology disconnects us from others.

Images of parents furtively tapping at their phones under the dinner table or groups of teenagers oblivious to each other as they stare into their phone screens fill popular culture. And up until now, everything people have done with computers has been largely visual. We type, we tap, we swipe, but we’re still interacting individually with with words or icons on a screen.

That tide may be turning with the combination of voice recognition software and the Echo, a stand-alone device that for the first time is meant for public, or at least family, use.

Intrigued by its popularity — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said last month it’s in such demand the company can’t keep them in stock — other companies may soon follow with their own stand-alone voice-activated speakers/assistant,.

A report in The Information in March said Google had a secret project to create a product to compete with the Echo. Wireless audio company Sonos has identified voice control as a key part of how people will experience music in their homes in the future. Samsung has added voice recognition to some of its TVs.

Apple has taken Siri, the familiar voice for iPhone users, into Apple TV and Apple CarPlay, though so far it hasn’t announced plans for other devices.

The co-founder of the digital assistant Siri, a familiar voice for iPhone users, introduced an artificial intelligence-powered digital assistant named Viv on Monday that would be available via any device and powered by every service.

The Echo is a wireless speaker and microphone with voice recognition that connects to Alexa via the cloud. Third-party vendors can build what Amazon calls “skills” for Alexa, effectively apps that let their devices interact with the Echo.

Together with the smaller Dash and Dot speakers, all three account for 26% of Amazon’s device sales, estimates Slice Intelligence, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based market research. Amazon hasn’t broken out individual device sales.

Alexa is competing in a crowded field of voice-recognition software that is using artificial intelligence to better understand and mimic human conversation.

Millions of people talk to Siri, OK, Google or Microsoft’s Cortana on their smartphones. The technology giants are pushing hard on this technology as a way to keep a user forever engaged within their own ecosystems of apps and services.

But still, those assistants are largely designed to be used individually.

The public interaction of Echo is what makes the interface different, said Regina Bernhaupt, head of research at Ruwido, an Austrian remote control company that makes extensive use of voice commands.

“People want to be social. They are at home with other people and they want to share,” she said.

From the user’s perspective, there’s suddenly no barrier between them and a veritable smorgasbord of things that a spoken command brings to life.

“The whole notation of an interface disappears,” says futurist and Stanford University professor Paul Saffo. .

Not a personal assistant

The social nature of voice-activated technology that’s made to be public has changed the dynamics of technology use in some households. “We have a ‘no tech after dinner rule’ but Alexa doesn’t count” because it doesn’t pull family members away from each other, Kientz says.

Though social niceties of Alexa haven’t quite been worked out yet. Is it OK to ask someone else’s Alexa for the weather report or to play a song?

Only if you ask your host for permission, says Daniel Post Senning, author of Manners in a Digital World and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute.

If he wanted to use someone’s else’s voice recognition system to check the weather or call a car, he’d first do the “briefest” of check in’s, to see if they minded.

As for just how revolutionary the Echo and other voice-activated systems will be, that depends on how people end up actually using them, said Marc Weber, a curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

There are dozens of failed attempts to create new user interfaces in the museum’s collection.

“It’s interesting that Amazon’s Echo brings that right out in to the open. It may be that they’ve come across the secret of making voice recognition socially acceptable,” he said.

Smartphones may loosen their grip over family life as voice devices rise – USA TODAY

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