voice control Tag

Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?

Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?

If your name happens to be Alexa—as was the name of my waitress the other day—you have my sympathies. (If your name is OK Google, you probably don’t need sympathy. You need a good family therapist.) You can’t blame your parents for naming you Alexa—unless you were born after Amazon introduced the Echo in 2014.

How could anyone have predicted how absurdly popular Amazon’s Alexa voice-control service would become? Four years ago, I never imagined there’d be such a superfluity of smart devices that are “Compatible with Alexa”—thermostats, ceiling fans, robot vacuum cleaners, light switches, microwave ovens, dishwashers, humidifiers/essential-oil diffusers, washers and dryers, door locks, salt shakers, and I’m not even close to being finished yet.


I think I can predict that, unlike 3D, voice control isn’t going to be a fad that quickly loses its popularity and then, as the years pass, barely clings to life as a glossed-over line item on a features/specification list. I have my doubts about the staying power of an Alexa-compatible smart salt dispenser with built-in mood lighting and Bluetooth speaker (and, no, I’m not making that up). But I’m positive that, in general, voice control is here to stay.

Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?

the SMALT smart salt dispenser

Voice-recognition technology will continue to improve, and the entire virtual assistant experience will get better—whether you’re using Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, or an up-and-coming open-source voice assistant like Mycroft AI. While that’s all fine and dandy, it doesn’t mean that everything is all right and nifty. Although we’re not the only creatures on this planet

that use tools, our species definitely relies on tools more than any of the others. I imagine one of our distant ancestors, an industrious Australopithecus afarensis dude, bashed a rock (or somebody’s head) with another rock, turned to the guy next to him, and grunted, “Always use the right tool for the right job.” Closer to our time, another person—

most likely a Minoan or a Roman—uttered the maxim, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” (As far as “Don’t be a tool” goes, I have no idea when that pithy nugget of advice became a thing.)


As magical as it may seem, voice control is nothing more than one more tool in our technology toolbox. It’s in there next to the infrared remote control, the joystick, the smartphone app, and the Star Wars Talking Darth Vader Clapper. It’s a good tool, 

too. But because it’s new, there’s an irresistible urge for companies to include voice-control capabilities in devices that have no need for them—even when voice control makes using the gadget more difficult. That’s the sort of user experience that can turn a person against voice control in general, especially if it’s the user’s first exposure to it.


I understand the urge to incorporate voice control into everything. I’ve had a relatively good experience with the Alexa devices (mostly Echoes), and it can easily fool you into thinking of it as the Swiss Army Knife of user interfaces. A couple of frustratingly one-sided “conversations” with Alexa—involving not waking up, not understanding a command, being told “Hmmm, I’m not sure right now,” getting a response to a totally random request, and having Alexa respond to the TV—will quickly disabuse you of that notion. (One time I asked Alexa to play “The world’s most relaxing song”—and, yes, there is such a thing. Alexa’s response was to play a long recording of a vuvuzela at max volume.)


Although voice control is a great tool for many tasks, it’s not the right tool for every job. It’s not even the right tool for most jobs. Sometimes it’s easier to use an app on your phone. At other times, it’s by far more intuitive and faster to use a remote control. Sometimes, shockingly, it’s actually best to use the buttons on the front panel.


Rather than a being a one-size-fits-all tool, voice control is more of a hammer whose usefulness is limited to working with “nails” made up of very specific words and phrases that are recognized by the controller. No matter how good 

natural-language processing eventually becomes, there will always be tasks for which it will be easier, faster, or less aggravating to accomplish by some manner other than speaking.


Voice control is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.

Darryl Wilkinson

During his 33 years of tenure in the consumer-electronics industry, Darryl Wilkinson
has made a career out of saying things that sound like they could be true about topics
he knows next to nothing about. He is currently Editor-at-Large for
Sound & Vision, and
sometimes writes things that can be read—if you have nothing else to do—elsewhere.
His biggest accomplishment to date has been making a very fashionable Faraday
cage hoodie.

Can Alexa Cure Technophobia?


I’ve had a few friends hop on the Amazon Alexa bandwagon recently, and invariably they all ask me the same sort of questions: “What are all the skills I need to install ASAP? How do I control my TV with this thing? Will she work my receiver? Can I teach her my favorite TV channels? What lights should I buy? Should I replace my thermostat?” In other words, they want Alexa to do everything, and they want her to do it now.


They ask me because they know I’m a huge proponent of home automation in general and of voice control specifically. My Control4 system forever changed the way I interact with my entertainment, and Alexa has changed the way I interact with my Control4 system.


So perhaps it’s a little surprising when I give all of these Alexa home-control newbies the same advice: Slow down. Take a deep breath. Stick your toe in the water and find what works best for you before you turn every aspect of your home-entertainment control over to this digital voice assistant.


And I say that for two reasons. First, there’s a lot that Alexa—and indeed, Google Home and similar digital voice assistants—can do, but that doesn’t mean you need them to do it all. Fill your Alexa app with too many skills, and soon you’ll find yourself tongue-tied trying to remember the words and phrases that control your lights, your TV, your Dish Hopper DVR, etc.


Second—and perhaps more importantly—voice control is still in its infancy. Cineluxe compatriot John Sciacca and I are both Control4 programmers, and we often share programming tips and tricks. We’ve had tons of conversations that began, “How could I get Alexa to . . ?” only to end with, “So, yeah, probably not worth the trouble.”


We both agree that voice control, amazing as it may be, is pretty limited in many respects. Most things people want to do with voice commands could more easily be done with the press of a button.


Where we disagree is that I’m pretty okay with that. In my own home, Alexa has full control of my lights—I can’t remember the last time my wife or I actually touched a dimmer or light switch—and I have a few voice commands set up to fire up my home theater system and tune to a handful of favorite TV channels. Most of those simply serve as a convenience for those times when I’m on the floor, snuggling with our four-legged little boy, and don’t feel like getting up to grab the remote.


So how can I justify saying that Alexa has changed the way my wife and I interact with our home if our voice-control commands are as simple as all that? In many ways, I think it’s because Alexa has made my wife more comfortable with technology by giving a personality to these impersonal black boxes.


A year ago, she was a veritable technophobe. These days, she’s tinkering with skills integration just out of curiosity—coming up with new ways to manage our grocery list with Alexa, for example. And as a result, she’s thinking more about the ways in which all of our control and entertainment devices connect.


She’s asking more questions. She’s using our Control4 system more, and in ways that have nothing to do with Alexa but can be directly traced to the fact that Alexa has made her more comfortable with control and entertainment technology.


There’s something to be said for that, I think. Even if voice control isn’t the main course when it comes to home-entertainment control, it’s certainly the spice that makes it more palatable for some people. And for now, that’s enough to really excite me.


—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.