A friend's father recently traded in his prehistoric Motorola flip phone for Apple's iPhone 4S. In no time, his family was forced to open its arms to a new member of the family: Siri, the iPhone 4S's voice-controlled personal assistant
She was an active participant in conversations. She cracked jokes, offered suggestions for things to do, settled arguments, and entertained an eight-year-old during a quiet afternoon.
The spouse of the proud new iPhone owner realized she now had to compete for her husband's attentions.
"He talks to Siri now more than to me," she said wryly.
Siri is merely a crude harbinger of what's to come: the phone as friend.
Gadget makers, from car manufacturers to smartphone sellers, are at the beginning of a race to develop devices that satisfy a desire even more primal than the need for convenience, communication and constant connectedness: the desire to feel loved.
They are harnessing new technology, such as voice recognition, to create more personable gadgets that we can relate to and we feel relate to us. We are being asked, and shown how, to fall in love with these devices because they can talk to us, care for us, and anticipate our needs -- even more effectively, in some cases, than a close friend. Siri can already be sarcastic, unpredictable and even flirtatious, giving the impression that our phone is not merely a phone, but a companion.
As specs, those unwieldy, acronym-laden descriptors of a device's speed and storage capabilities hold less sway over our choice of phone or PC, and companies are seeking out new ways to distinguish their products from the competition.
In recent years, hardware-peddlers such as Apple and Amazon have succeeded by marketing devices that tap into an ecosystem of apps, music, movies and other content, understanding that much of the appeal of the device resides in what you can do on it.
The products on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, the world's largest consumer tech expo, suggest that the next competitive advantage lies in developing the gadget that doubles as a companion. The device with impressive specs is being supplanted by the gadget that can sympathize. We'll love our phone not because it has a great camera or terrific processing speeds, but because that Siri is just so darn fun to be around and boy, she really gets me.
And it's not just about the gadgets that fit in the palms of our hands. As I previously reported, Ford's global manager of health and wellness research, Gary Strumolo, stated in explicit terms his hope that drivers will feel they have a relationship with a vehicle that looks after their well-being and takes care of them by tracking their health.
"The more that you talk to a car that understands you, understands your needs, and maybe even anticipates your needs, the more you'll have an emotional bond with the car," Strumolo said during a keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show. "You'll think, 'This car is really concerned with my well-being. I feel it understands me, it's helping me.' It's essentially a personal assistant."
Gadget-makers are exploring a litany of ways to seduce us into sensing an emotional relationship with our devices.
For example, equipped with the right kind of software, our gadgetry could use our personal information, as well as data about our past behavior, to anticipate our needs and offer the kind of considerate suggestions we'd expect from a spouse. Our tablet would not only be the tool that helps us accomplish an activity, but also the playmate that suggests what to do in the first place.
When I sit down in front of my TV, the set will recognize me and remember that I've watched three seasons of "Law and Order" and every hour of the "Sopranos," but I couldn't get past the first episode of "Community."
"Bianca," the television might say, "maybe you'd be in the mood for 'CSI'? I'm pretty sure I saw the first season on Netflix."
With information from Facebook, which is also being integrated into TV sets and smartphones, our devices could reference our network of family and friends, giving the impression that they're just one of the gang.
"Matt and Jesse have been raving about 'Boardwalk Empire' in their status updates," the set top box would tell me. "And Mallory, Eric and Andrew all 'liked' it. That could be a good one for tonight."
Our homes are not so far away from this omniscient reality. Later this year, Samsung will release TVs outfitted with facial recognition systems that enable the set to scan the viewer's face and display customized entertainment options depending on who sits down in front of the boob tube. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt also envisioned a household of inter-connected gadgets, all powered by Google's Android software, that would recognize and react when you entered the room, displaying, say, your text messages on a TV screen. Companies like Amazon and Foursquare already propose recommendations based on the books or venues we've enjoyed in the past.
Given that computers can process more data and recognize patterns more efficiently than us mere mortals, our smartphones, tablets and TVs might even be able to predict a friend's needs better than we can. I thought my cousin would go wild over the Don DeLillo book I gave him for his birthday. Amazon, on the other hand, knows he's already bought it.
What will make these personalized suggestions so powerful is the fact that they're being coupled with new hardware that allows gadgets to respond in more human ways. Machines are making an effort to connect with us in the same way we connect with each other. We can now talk to our TVs or carry on conversations with our smartphones.
Microsoft's Kinect, coupled with its Xbox gaming system, can pick up on our body language and respond to our voice. You can flip through movies just as you'd brush aside the offer of tea from a host, or issue it commands as you might speak to a young child. Other companies like SoftKinetic and PrimeSense are also working on gesture recognition technology that requires waving at TV as you might an old friend and they aim to embed their sensors into everything from PCs to smartphones.
I'm not predicting a world in which humans are made obsolete by more caring, altruistic cyborgs. But it does portend a changing relationship with our devices, one that stands to see us forge more intimate bonds with our electronics and rely on them even more than we do now.
Gadgets have always been a means of connecting to someone personable. But what happens if the means become personable themselves? Siri?
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