Blah blah blah: We’re going to be talking a lot in 2016

I’ve been slowly digesting Talk to Me, the collection of essays edited by Paola Antonelli (of MoMA) over the holidays. As she says in the preface,

Whether openly and actively or in subtle, subliminal ways, things talk to us. They do not all speak aloud: some communicate in text, diagrams, and other graphic interfaces; others empathetically and almost telepathically, just keeping us company and storing our memories; still others in sensual ways, with warmth, scent, texture. Objects populate our homes and pur lives; buildings and places have identities and characters; cars and airplanes speak and listen; virtual worlds beckon us; London’s Tower Bridge and artist Maria Abromovic’s chair even send tweets.

We are living in a world of increasingly talkative objects, objects that listen, text, and tweet. This is a growing trend, and one which will lead to a major impact on technology user experience, and ultimately, how we think about and interact with the world and each other.

In the deluge of year-end future predictions, I have been observing one consumer trend that I believe will rapidly muscle its way into the business context: talking. When I say we will be talking more in 2016, I don’t mean that people are going to be making more phone calls — and writing less email — in 2016. I’m thinking of voice, and talking to increasingly smart devices that are appearing on the market.

Today I received a press email about Otko, which is a smart ring that communicates with smart devices, and allows you to take a call by tapping the ring and then cupping your hand — and the ring — over your ear.

You can then leave your phone in your pocket or bag,

Alternatives to the ring are various sorts of ‘earables’, like the Bragi Dash, a bluetooth noise-cancelling pair of wireless earbuds that work in tandem with smart phones and tablets as a touch-activated voice and audio solution.


bragi_dash_blackMy experience is that wearing earbuds — even the best designed ones — can lead to ear pain, so for the long haul a smart ring looks like a better solution. On the other hand (so to speak) noise cancellation has a great attraction. I’m starting to imagine having both sorts of devices and using at different times in different contexts. And when will Apple get into the game?

But over and above the obvious talk-talk-talk with earables and smart rings fronting for our phones, what about talking with apps, services, and artificial agents?

This past year I ‘spoke’ a great deal with an artificial agent, an ‘AI’ called Amy Ingram that has been working as a virtual assistant making appointments for me. I don’t talk to Amy, though: she’s reachable only through email, which is probably the best medium, considering that most of the negotiation around setting appointments starts and ends with email. In Amy’s case, all I have to do is cc her on an email, and add some guidance like ‘Amy – Can you schedule a time for Carla and me to talk next Wednesday or the week after?’. She picks up the thread with Carla, and I can step aside. Later on I receive an invitation to an event, or an email from Amy letting me know something’s gone wrong. I figure that Amy is saving me hours of email tag per week: she’s become indispensable. And yes, I would like to be able to text and talk with her, too.

Facebook’s Messenger is moving in that direction with M, their answer to Google Now, Siri, Cortana, and Alexa. And since its introduction in mid 2015, M is getting four times as many ‘social mentions’ as any competitor, presumably since it is embedded in Messenger.

And I expect to see a parade of other ai-enabled assistants like Amy (or Andrew, if you’d rather a male assistant) to support us in other domains, like travel planning. Travelocity founder Terry Jones is at work on WayBlazer, a solution that is leveraging IBM’s Watson technology to help with travel planning. Personally, I’d be happy with something that just knows how to make plane reservations on my behalf, and to get me aisle seats if possible.

Amazon Echo is likely to become one of those iconic innovations that comes to define a product category, and in this instance, Echo looks like the form factor for the home hub that many are trying to emulate.

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Or is it the underlying Alexa technology, which is a competitor to Siri and Cortana? I’ll be trying Alexa out in a slightly different package later this week, when my new Amazon Firestick arrives. Apparently I will be able to use voice commands/interaction with Alexa on that device when plugged into my TV.

The distinction between this form factor and the Echo is more about location. My TV is in the living room and far too large to move to the kitchen, while I think of the Echo as a kitchen-first object.

I’ll report more on that experience in the weeks to come, and about smart rings and ear buds as I start to acquire them.

But the simplest bet to make is that these tools — especially the wearables — will be rapidly moving into the workplace. About that, more to follow.