One of the big laughs from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the crew from the future travels back in time to 1986 San Francisco, happens when Scotty is put in front of a PC and the chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise speaks into the mouse, “Hello, computer.”
In the 30+ years since that film came out, society has undergone a digital transformation. Now the average half-asleep user can roll over in bed and call out from under a pillow, “Hey Siri, start the coffee.”
The dawn of the Internet of Things (IoT) brings your daily environment alive with smart home and smart office devices. However, it’s up to innovative app developers to introduce creative controls for these devices. Here’s a look at the tools developers are using to integrate their software-defined innovations with the big four conversational platforms: Siri from Apple, Alexa from Amazon, Cortana from Microsoft, and the Google Assistant from Alphabet.
The Top 4 Virtual Assistants
In 2010, Siri was one of the first functional virtual assistants, quickly acquired and branded as an essential Apple function. Siri had been built on the shell of DARPA’s Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes, or CALO. In Scandinavian languages, Siri means “beautiful victory,” and in Swahili it means “mystery” — but both could be nods at its origin in the Department of Defense. More practically, Siri’s name is also derived from its parent organization, SRI International.
Apple’s SiriKit helps developers integrate their apps into iOS and the early experiments in smart home infrastructure. Siri handles the voice-based user interactions and natural language recognition functions. It connects the app with the camera, ApplePay, VoIP calling, and other related services.
When Amazon was developing the Echo device, it needed a wake-up word that wasn’t likely to be confused with other mentions. Tests with the name “Amazon” tended to generate responses whenever a commercial for Amazon came on TV and would start buying items at random. Alexa was chosen for the virtual assistant when it was released in 2014, but users had the option to change its name to Echo or Amazon.
Amazon has created an Alexa Skills Kit, a collection of self-service APIs, tools, documentation, and code samples for developers who want to build onto the Alexa platform. They also offer a Smart Home Skill API for streamlined control of smart home technologies like cloud-controlled lighting systems or rooms with variable thermostat settings. This code is designed to run in the cloud, not on the Echo or the user’s mobile device.
The same year Amazon put Alexa on the market, Microsoft demonstrated Cortana at the Build Developer Conference. In 2015, Cortana was included as part of the operating system in the Windows 10 desktop and mobile platform update. This year, Cortana will be integrated with Microsoft’s Skype. Microsoft is trying to catch up with other conversational platforms through superior personalization. Cortana’s Program Manager, Marcus Ash, said, “Millions of years of evolution tell us that relationship means personification. If you don’t put a face on it and make it emotional to people, it’s just hard to believe that people will tell us information that will make Cortana really great for them.”
Microsoft has an advantage with decades of developer research to build a comprehensive software kit. Integrating Cortana in Your Apps at the Microsoft Virtual Academy has videos, slide presentations, a free trial of Visual Studio, and various other resources for developers. It even goes into testing procedures and error handling. Unlike Siri, which only works with Apple’s iOS apps, Cortana works with common applications like Hulu Plus and Facebook.
When Google, Inc. reorganized itself under a parent organization called Alphabet in 2015, it freed up the Google brand to redefine itself. While Alphabet goes on to invest in wild ideas, from humanoid robots to extending human life spans, Google is turning into a virtual assistant. In direct opposition to the other three platforms, Google’s assistant doesn’t have a female name or the illusion of a personality behind the algorithm. Google’s Jonathan Jarvis explained, “We always wanted to make it feel like you were the agent, and it was more like a superpower that you had and a tool that you used. If you create this personified assistant, that feels like a different relationship.”
The Actions on Google program has a single API that can support various Android devices including phones, tablets, and watches. It includes both Direct Actions, where the user asks for something specific, and Conversational Actions, where the user asks for something general and the Google Assistant engages in a conversation to gather all the details. Google demonstrated the Conversational Action with an Uber request, where the Assistant moderated a conversation with Uber about where the user is going and which kind of Uber service they want to take them there.
Converging Trends Driving Conversation Platforms
Though most of this tech has been available for years, 2017 should prove to be an exciting year in conversational platforms as these five trends converge:
1. Mobile Natives
The success of chat apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Kik are driven by an entire generation of mobile-native consumers, comfortable with messaging and interacting with their devices.
2. Language Recognition
Chatbot personalities and AI natural language processing are far more accurate than ever in understanding speech and context-aware requests.
3. Mass Personalization
Sophistication in sensors and wearable tech have made mass personalization and predictive assistance both possible and profitable.
4. Secure Online Payments
Blockchain and related online payment tech have integrated themselves seamlessly into messaging and third-party apps.
5. Always-On Interface
Notification intelligence has advanced to the point where it can reliably serve as an always-on interface layer across devices.
Best Applications for Smart Home/Smart Office
Some of the most useful applications available to users without programming experience involve Alexa recipes on If This Then That (IFTTT.com). These should inspire developers to go further.
- Phone Finder: This connects to the iPhone Finder on iOS, but is limited if the ringer is off. For Android, you can combine recipes to turn up the volume and play music.
- Lock the Doors: At night before they go to bed, users can direct Alex to make sure all the doors are locked.
- Change the Lights: To make sure you get the message when a timer goes off, even if you don’t hear the alarm or are outside, Alexa can change the lighting to make sure you see it.
In the office, Microsoft projects that Cortana will be able to streamline your day at the office and make everyone more productive by discovering where time is wasted. For example, you will be able to ask Cortana who is in the office and when they are out of a meeting. Cortana will also be able to help assemble teams for collaborations, discovering who has the best skills and experience needed for each project. It will do this by culling information from emails, company documents, web searches, and software authorizations.
The big news from Google is their Google Cloud Speech API, which will be set up to handle more than 80 languages. The intent is to integrate with any application in real-time, streaming or batch mode. The API will be able to support communications from any device that can send REST or gRPC requests, including phones, PCs, cars, TVs, and other IoT devices. Google claims that this tech will be able to identify and respond to commands even in noisy environments, which could open it up to other types of work environments and public areas. Initially the API will be free, but Google plans to add tiers of paid service levels later on in development.
The future of Apple’s Siri is likely to include a standalone device to compete with Amazon Echo. Apple suggests that Siri will be able to search through images and videos to find either personal photos or an applicable YouTube video. Siri also demonstrated an ability to understand vaguely worded commands like, “Tell Nancy I’ll be five minutes late with WeChat.” A vision of what’s possible is the MapMyRun app from Under Armour. The next version will allow users to tell Siri to start, pause, and resume a workout among other functions. The built-in brand loyalty of users on iOS, OSX, and Apple HomeKit makes Siri’s growing openness particularly attractive for app developers.
The Default Interface for the IoT
Virtual assistants will have to be the average user’s primary interface with the IoT, at home or in the office. There will be at least 28 billion IoT devices by 2020, so knowing how to integrate your applications with conversational tech will be a critical skill set in the very near future. As people grow more dependent on these assistants, you’ll need more sophisticated application performance monitoring (APM) software for continuous delivery. Maximize uptime and use dynamic baselining to predict abnormal behavior patterns before they compromise performance. AppDynamics is positioned to handle what’s coming next, so make sure your innovative creations don’t get left behind.
Learn more about IoT with this eBook, “Breaking Down the Internet of Things.”