Back in earlier 2000s, we were lucky enough to have an internet connection at home. Internet connection pack from VSNL (Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited) came with 100 MB data limit with a modem which dialed through phone at 52 KBPS. We used the Internet only on weekends and usually at night post 10 PM to get the best speeds and also it was the only time in the day when we didn’t get any phone calls. The internet connection used to self-disconnect in case the phone rang up so we had a hard time convincing mom why she shouldn’t make calls to her relative during the same time.

bonzi-buddy
BonziBuddy

It was somewhere during the same time I discovered BonziBuddy for the first time. For someone who had spent his time playing Prince and Wolfenstein on the desktop, Bonzi Buddy for the first time made a software look intuitive. Bonzi Buddy had a built-in text-to-speech engine and speech recognition software which allowed it to have an enhanced level of interaction with users. While BonziBuddy was a fascinating tool for a young user but it didn’t learn anything about you no matter how many interactions you had with it.

It was only years later that I discovered that BonziBuddy was spyware that most users found annoying. In fact, PC World readers voted BonziBuddy 6th on a list of “The 20 Most Annoying Tech Products”. Bonzi Buddy was built on Microsoft Agent a technology developed by Microsoft which employs animated characters, text-to-speech engines, and speech recognition software to improve interaction with the user. The theory behind this software came from work on social interfaces by Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves at Stanford’s Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Clippy_Microsoft_Office_Assistant
Clippy Office Assistant

Microsoft Agent also powered Clippit or Clippy the office assistant from Microsoft Office which again was considered annoying by many users but improved upon with simple tactic employed to create the impression of scapegoat. After Clippy made a suggestion or answer a question, he would ask, “Was that helpful?” and then present buttons for ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. If the user clicked ‘No’ then Clippy would say ‘That gets me really angry! Let’s tell Microsoft how bad their help system really is.” He would then pop up an e-mail to be sent to ‘Manager, Microsoft Support.” with the subject, ‘Your help system needs work!” After giving the user couple of minutes to type a complaint, Clippy would say, “C’mon! You can be tougher than that. Let ’em have it!” The right social strategy saved Clippy from ending up on the list of most hated software because the users felt that the software was really supportive.

Many years later sometime in February 2010 Apple Founder, Steve Job called Dag Kittlaus, Founder of a start-up which had launched its app on the App store on Feb 4th of the same month. On April 30th of the same year, Apple acquired the company. The company that Apple acquired was Siri what we know today as the most popular virtual personal assistant. Siri works using Automatic Speech Recognition which transcribes human text to speech and natural language processing to translate text in ‘parsed text’ (analyse (a string or text) into logical syntactic components) so that system understand users request.

Siri also resulted in every platform provider taking notice with Microsoft launching Cortana and Google launching Google Now (Voice Search) to compete with the platform as most considered the platform to be the early prototype version of next generation search engine.

The next generation of Virtual Assistant is already in the making. Siri co-founders Dag Kittlaus & Adam Cheyer are planning to launch VIV. VIV will be self-taught, conversational and will learn from every interaction with the user. In the below video Adam Cheyer, one of the founding members of Siri talks about the progress of intelligent interfaces and on his latest project VIV.

The topic of Evolution of Virtual Assistants /Intelligent Interfaces is incomplete without a mention to the numerous advances made during the past few decades starting with Portico (Mary) (1996) and Microsoft Bob (powered by Microsoft Agent technology) 1995. Here is summarized compilation of evolution of virtual assistants starting from late 90’s to 2016 and beyond. Do note that 2016 will also see the launch of Google’s new assistant Google Home.

Evolution of Virtual Assistants

 

Virtual_Assistant_Infographic

No matter whether you refer it to as intelligent interface, personal assistant or artificial intelligence its an area that’s fascinating and will have a profound impact on how we as consumers/users will interact with our devices in future. Take for example something like speech synthesis has undergone so much research that today companies like Google are working on making the computer voice as real as a human voice. Check the video from Nat & Leo’s channel below which gives more insights into speech synthesis and what goes behind the scene to make Google Voice Search work.

As consumers or co-creators we only see a short distance ahead but there certainly is a plenty of work to done ahead for building the next generation of virtual assistants.

“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” – Alan Turing