Software & Web Development

Rant: Voice input is overhyped and overrated

Google Docs, I read today, has a new feature that lets users voice-control edits and formatting but I’d be surprised if it gets used by many. After all, you can speak to Microsoft Word today but how many of us bother? That’s because using your vocal chords to run software doesn’t work very well and is largely unnecessary unless you’re driving a vehicle or have an inability to use fingers or pens for input.

For several decades now voice has been talked up as the ultimate means of input but it has steadfastly failed to deliver. That’s because to use it you need to speak clearly, in a quiet room and be very, very patient. Why bother when other forms of input are faster unless you have some niche-within-a-niche task at hand?

I was brought up in the north-east and retain the semblance of a Geordie accent. An unlovely perception still fairly widely held, suggests Geordies are our neighbours the Scots but with the brains removed, and certainly I had to learn to speak very differently when I moved to London many years ago. That is because most people had no earthly idea what I was talking about when I opened my mouth – and it wasn’t just the content either. Aged about 19 I had a long and embarrassing conversation, if you could call it that, when I asked a bank cashier if she knew the date for a cheque I was writing. In the end I was reduced to writing down the word ‘date’ which I was mangling to sound like DEE-at.

Equally mortifying was an occasion at a book signing when I asked the novelist Angela Carter to dedicate her novel Nights at the Circus (still unread by the way, is it any good?) to my father, Danny. It was only the intervention of the bookshop assistant saying “like the song Danny Boy” that ended a long and sorry scene that another writer, Dickens perhaps, might have mined for comic-sympathy effect. To this day I struggle to get out consonants that appear in the middle of words, particularly ‘t’ – not great when your name is Martin.

If a person with the amazing gift of the brain can’t understand me it’s unlikely that a computer will and even today with my slowly acquired passable diction I see no reason to speak to electronic devices. Voice response systems still don’t work well for me but then I don’t think they work very well for many people. The quality of phone lines on mobile networks don’t help either.

And then consider Siri. Initially touted as some wondrous breakthrough in human-computer interaction on its debut, today it has become a bit of a joke – not very useful, not even that usable.

Will things change? Perhaps. Voice might make sense as the interface for wearables with tiny or non-existent screens, although we said that about phones and the keyboards today are marvels.

Voice, it strikes me, is an illusory pursuit for technologists determined to conquer even those things that aren’t particularly worth conquering. It’s notable that the market for voice has all but shrunk down to one player, the excellent but still niche-y Nuance. Even today it appears on lists of up-and-coming Next Big Thing technologies but, speaking personally, I wouldn’t waste my breath.


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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