The digital assistant space is getting crowded. You can barely speak now without some connected device thinking that you're talking to them.
Ok, that might be somewhat of an exaggeration but it's clear that these voice controlled agents are going to play a big part in the connected tech revolution. Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple are all heavily invested and, if you've not got a digital buddy build into some hardware in your house, you soon will have...
"Alexa, what is an intelligent personal assistant?"
"An intelligent personal assistant is a software agent that can perform tasks or services for an individual. These tasks or services are based on user input, location awareness, and the ability to access information from a variety of online sources, such as weather, traffic, news, stock prices, user schedules and retail prices."
That's exactly what you would hear back after asking that question to Amazon's AI assistant, Alexa. She'd have gathered the information from Wikipedia and spoken it back to you in her soothing tone in the blink of an eye. She doesn't have eyes, or indeed ears or a mouth, but you get the idea.
Ask her nicely and she'll also dim the brightness on your smart bulbs, play your favourite tunes and read you the news headlines as well. In fact, you don't have to ask her nicely, you can shout at her if you like - she'll still do it, like the digital bitch she is.
I've had Siri for ages though, and it's crap...
Indeed. Apple's AI assistant, which arrived with the iPhone 4S in 2011, hasn't exactly been the zenith of a voice-controlled revolution. People had already established efficient controls for their smartphones (their fingers) and talking into a phone (when there wasn't someone on the other end) made people feel stupid.
But this is all much, much better. There's no-one to laugh at you when you're talking to a speaker or a hockey-puck shaped disc in your own house. And, let's face it, controlling your connected tech at home is a fiddly-as-fuck affair using a mobile touchscreen.
These new wave of digital assistants allow you to fire up and control a vast array of tech in your house, while at the same time providing you a gateway to a the wealth of up-to-date info the web provides, without ever having to take your phone out of your pocket.
You simply... talk. You don't even need to push a button.
Sounds gimmicky, how long does the novelty last?
Quite the opposite. It becomes addictive and you'll discover that you become pretty reliant on it.
Not only that but these AI bots learn about you over time and evolve and improve to better cater your digital needs.
So, it's just clever software?
Well, yes but here's the thing. It's software that's starting to spread its digital wings to hardware in various shapes and sizes.
Amazon kind of kickstarted everything when it set the Echo free last last year. The Amazon Echo (and its little sibling, the Echo Dot) pack in the aforementioned Alexa - but she's not exclusive to Bezos-branded gizmos.
The Alexa Voice Service platform lets manufacturers put Alexa inside "any connected product that has a microphone and speaker". So far we've seen the likes of GE, Triby, Onyx, LG, and Omate announcing kit packing Alexa.
Anything cool coming soon?
Microsoft's version, Cortana (which is actually one of the better smartphone-based assistants) will be built into a Harman Kardon speaker that's coming next year and we're told by the Redmond giant that we should expect more Cortana-powered gadgets and appliances in the coming months as a result of the new Cortana SDK.
Google Assistant made its non-smartphone debut in the just-launched Google Home speaker and there's plans afoot to get an SDK out to devs next year so it can appear on non-Google branded devices.
What about when I'm not at home?
Samsung's S Voice is built right into the Gear S3 smartwatch and, for you super-early adopters Sony's Xperia Ear hearable packs in Xperia Agent, Google Voice (not Assistant, mind) and Samsung S Voice for your digital conversations.
Sounds like something that'd be cool in the car too?
You're on the money. One of the major announcements from AutoMobility LA in November was Hyundai hooking the Amazon Echo up to its Blue Link connected car app, meaning you can remotely start the engine, set the temperature and have it warm up while you finish your coffee in the kitchen. Soon, car makers will let you voice control in the other direction - getting your home ready on your way back.
Taking things a step further, that new Cortana SDK we mentioned... Microsoft has stated it wants connected cars packing Cortana.
And, of course, Siri has already made the jump to Apple's iOS CarPlay.
How big of a deal is this really?
It's really big. Forget the awful voice recognition software you've come across in the past, we're on the verge on the real-deal; the holy grail of human / computer interaction.
The tools (both hardware and software) are, at last, good enough, cheap enough and attainable enough to make voice-based conversational interface a real possibility.