“Hey, Erik, you’re a techie – you gotta see this!” Comparing new devices in a bar or coffee hut goes down a lot like guys used to walk to the curb to show off a new car. What is the latest? How impressive will it be? The Sprint Evo device looked like just another iPhone or any other gadget, but this one has something very different. After a brief introduction to the owner he showed off what he thought was the most impressive feature – messaging with a nearly bullet-proof voice recognition system. No more texting, this sleek black slab of tech was something you talked to. Let me tell you why this is so impressive and why I’ve been waiting decades for this small advancement.
Texting has become the way that kids talk to each other. I have to confess that I really don’t understand it – in my day, we picked up the phone and spoke to each other (that’s the way it was and we liked it). It’s not that all this thumb action makes me feel old, it’s how terribly inefficient and devoid of personality any of it really is. Like any human, I’m set up to talk to people and can do it far quicker than anyone can text. I can also include nuances like sarcasm that texting simply loses.
There’s a lot more and even less to the lack of a soft, smiling voice in the lives of the texty generation. They seem to think they invented this somehow partly because their parents (like me) sneer at their love of abbreviated character based messages. But this is hardly new stuff. Pagers have been around since the 1970s, and BITnet chat was almost precisely the same as twitter except it was very 1985.
For our love of what we call technology, the genuine advances in devices fall into two categories: common availability coupled with portability. The main difference between twitter and BITnet is that nearly everyone has twitter but only a few geeks had access to a chain of connected mainframes. The main difference between a pager and the new iPhones is that what we can carry with us simply does a lot more than before, making the Jetsons’ videophones a reality.
In short, it’s not the technology that is all that important. We’ve always tended to use whatever tech we have in about the same ways because, no matter what kids think, we’re roughly the same people. What has changed is that we have a lot more of it and shrunk an 1980s DECsystem-20 into something we can hold in our hands.
This takes me back to voice recognition because it’s the first real leap in something like technology that we’ve had in a long time. It will be a major advance to the blind, without any doubt. But imagine for a moment if the conversations we have, like this one, are done primarily through voice rather than text. Being able to go back and forth between the two forms opens up texting to greater efficiency in the short term, but in the long run it almost certainly means text and voice will be coupled. The personalities of people come through and the old problem of human-machine interaction melts away. Messaging and services like twitter will have to change to include both.
The problem with handling voice has always been a raw computing power problem. It takes up space and bandwidth, and the lack of good voice to text makes it difficult to catalog and search. We may have finally solved those problems largely by nothing more than brute force.
Kids, watch out. It turns out that your Dad may have been right – you may look back at how you used to be able to text only to laugh at how silly and out of date it was, just as we look back on our hairstyles in the 1980s and laugh. But if you want to, you can laugh at us as being just like our own parents when get excited about the latest thing – even if the befinned chrome ride has changed into a slab of glossy plastic that fits into a pocket. Things might change, but people really don’t. It’s all good..