Adding Voice Activation to Television Is a Terrible Idea

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Jan. 12 2012 4:43 PM

I Said Mad Men, Not Mad Money!

Companies like Apple want to replace the TV remote with voice recognition. There’s got to be a better way.

Samsung SmartTV
Samsung's Smart TV comes with voice recognition. How good it is is another question.

Samsung

Did Steve Jobs punk the TV industry on his way out? In one of his final interviews with biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs said that he wanted to transform the tube in the same way he’d remade other gadgets. “I’d like to create an integrated television set that is easy to use,” he said. “It would be seamlessly synced with all your devices and with iCloud.” Jobs suggested that Apple’s goal was to eliminate the hassles that we’ve all grown used to in the living room—badly designed remotes, devices that can’t communicate with one another, and graphical interfaces that are a pain to learn and to use. But Jobs was typically vague on the details. All he would say was that he’d come up with something amazing. “It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine,” he said. “I finally cracked it.”

A few days after the biography was published, the New York Times’ Nick Bilton reported that “it is becoming clear that Mr. Jobs was talking about Siri,” the voice-activated personal assistant that Apple unveiled on the iPhone 4S last year. Bilton, citing anonymous sources, said that in building a television set that some observers believe will be released later this year, Apple rejected a slew of alternative controllers, including a wireless keyboard and mouse and various iOS devices. Instead, you’d control Apple’s TV with your voice.

In the aftermath of Bilton’s report, seemingly every TV manufacturer has followed Apple’s supposed lead and gone gaga for voice. At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show, Samsung, LG, and Sony showed off voice-activated televisions, Blu-ray players, and media-streaming set-top boxes. Nuance, one of the leading voice-recognition software companies, unveiled Dragon TV, a service that TV makers can install in their sets to make them responsive to voice. In December, Microsoft put out a software update for the Xbox 360 console that allows for voice commands.

It’s likely that all of these companies were working on voice control before they heard Jobs was interested in it. But Apple’s anticipated entry into the TV business—and the fact that Steve Jobs believed he’d solved an issue that has plagued electronics business for years—has set off a mad rush to launch voice-savvy televisions as fast as possible.

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Emphasis on mad: From what I’ve seen, many of the efforts to bring voice activation to televisions are clunky at best. These devices aren’t very responsive to spoken commands, and even when the TV does figure out what you’re saying, it’s not as fast as using the remote. Voice does seem to be a good way to search for shows by name—it’s easier to say “turn on the Republican debate” than to type your query using a remote. But that’s only if voice search works really well—and if people’s lackluster experiences with Siri are any indication, voice is not yet as reliable as a remote control. What’s more, adding voice recognition to your TV doesn’t solve most of the problems with your home theater system. It doesn’t make it any easier for your TV to communicate with your other devices, for instance. It doesn’t improve your access to Web videos. And it doesn't improve your cable system's terrible interface, either.

And that’s why I wonder if Jobs was tricking his competitors by suggesting he’d found a single killer interface for TV. If the alleged Apple TV is really going to revolutionize the business, there’s got to be a lot more to it than a single perfect controller. The Apple TV will also need some way to keep your Blu-ray player in line (no matter who makes your Blu-ray player) and some way to navigate your cable or satellite set-top box (regardless of how antiquated it is). As I wrote in March, home-theater components are a lot dumber than computers. When I want to watch a DVD, I’ve got to set my TV’s input to “DVD mode,” which is kind of bizarre—why can’t my TV display images from my DVD player when I press play, in the same way that my computer starts playing a YouTube video without me putting it into “YouTube mode”? Unless Apple solves this more fundamental problem—and I worry that they won’t be able to—voice control is just going to seem like a useless gimmick.

To understand the problem with relying on speech to control your TV, watch this video of one of the Verge’s reporters trying out Samsung’s speech-ready TV.

To change the channel, he says, “Channel number 14.” He waits a second. Nothing happens. He tries again. “Channel 14.” It takes a half second, but finally the TV responds. “Volume up,” he says. Nothing. He tries again, and this time it works. The video goes on like this, with Samsung reps showing off other odd ways of interacting with the TV. For instance, you can move between shows using Kinect-style motion gestures, including making a fist twice to “double click” on an item, which seems far more annoying than just pressing a button on the remote. The whole thing is excruciating. If I had this TV, I’d read a lot more books.

Other voice-controlled TVs hitting the market aren’t quite as bad—this LG version works a lot better than Samsung’s—but I’ve yet to see one that’s as responsive as I’d want my TV to be. I don’t doubt that Apple will add Siri to its TV, but I hope that it does so judiciously. Routine commands—changing the channel up, changing the volume, turning it on and off—are best done by a remote control, not voice. (And when I say a remote, I mean a real, dedicated remote with hard keys, not an iPhone-like touchscreen; we use remote controls lazily, feeling around for buttons by touch, which you can’t do with a glass screen.)

But even if Apple does get voice to work on your tube, that can’t be its whole game. Any TV worthy of the brand will have to control other home entertainment peripherals. The trouble is, Apple has never been very good at playing with other companies’ devices. People who love Apple gadgets love them because they “just work,” as Jobs used to say—and the reason they just work is because Apple controls the entire experience. It can’t do that in the living room, a place that has long been sullied by stuff from a wide range of companies. Jobs said he’d cracked this problem. I really, truly wonder how—and I wonder, too, if he wasn’t being a bit too hopeful.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.