Feb 4, 2014

Natural Interfaces - The Next Generation Of The Internet Of Things

Two weeks ago, Google acquired Nest and made huge waves in the tech community. I would like to add an angle which I think is important and underrepresented yet: Natural Interfaces and Context.

First, history: One hundred years ago, personal assistants in our households were a common thing. Most middle class homes could afford at least one. Who would take care of your house, wash the dishes, clean the floors, iron, etc. In romantic accounts called the "good soul" of your home. We do not indulge in this luxury anymore. Today, we have mediocre replacements like dishwasher, the washing machine, ovens, vacuum cleaners, and steam irons. These dumb devices need a lot of manual help to function properly and you need to tell them what to do using crude dials and knobs. To have a good soul in your home who takes care of everything for your comfort is still very much something people want.

The Internet Of Things, combined with Context and Natural Interfaces, will give you the good soul back. This is where we are heading, and where we would like to contribute. Smart Things, which can service you best because they know your preferences, know your daily routine, and can interact with you in a natural way. 

Why Natural Interfaces are important: Natural Interfaces are a far superior interface compared to traditional computer interfaces like keys, buttons, touch screens and smartphones. Humans are built around Natural Interfaces. Voice, gestures, mimics, body language, communication distance are our way to efficiently communicate with each other. They have been our builtin interfaces for thousands of years.

As we get more and more smart things, like Nest, tado, SmartThings, Hue, LIFX, ifttt, Withings, WigWag, WeMo, Qivicon, natural interfaces play their strengths. They don't require more knobs and dials, they don't require touch screens, they don't require you to pull out your smartphone to open an app and they certainly don't require you to learn a new interaction method.

Natural Interfaces in action. This short video shows how I would like to communicate with a personal assistant at home. I call him Alfred:

Alfred is a natural interface assistant which we mashed up in very little time using commonplace technologies: The Kinect, an online text2speech service, Sphinx speech recognition, Qivicon and Philips Hue to control blinders and light. Of course a lot is mocked up for the demo. My point is, great natural interface services using commonplace technology are well within the grasp of a medium sized project.

Smart things which you can talk to will get us close to the perfect "good soul" at home. However there is one thing missing: Context.

Context makes Natural Interfaces natural (and actually useful). Context is something we do subconsciously. We know where we are, who do we talk talk to, what did we talk about 5 minutes ago, what is our background, what we like, how close is our relationship, etc. Context is incredibly hard for computers to get right. For example, if I say "Let's go" to my 2-year old on a Monday at 8am, he knows exactly that we will go to the kindergarten. Siri instead says "Here is what I found: Let's Go (Calvin Harris Song)". To get context right, computers need to know everything about us. 

Getting Context & Recognition right is the key to efficient interaction. Without context, speech recognition is awkward. With context, is is the most efficient interaction method ever. That is why we are very much interested in the combination. Core technologies for both fields are available today. The Internet Of Things / Smart Home is a good field for application, as we see many interaction challenges there. Context awareness combined with existing recognition technology can bring us the good soul at home we want.

Where this is all going. Tomorrow I would like to have this conversation with my oven:

Me (putting pizza in oven): "Dear oven, please cook that pizza".
Oven: "Sure. Medium-crisp, as always?".
Me: "Yeah. Oh, and I will be out for two hours".
Oven: "It will be ready when you are back".

Bosch/Siemens, Miele: Please make it happen. We would like to.