February 26, 2018 by Kirsten Nelson

SonosWhen I arrived home from a long business trip with an even longer set of flight delays this past weekend, I actually told Alexa I was home. It was drizzling outside, I was still addled by my travel disasters, and Alexa perkily replied through my Sonos One, “Welcome home. I hope you are having a good day.”

Given the circumstances, some might expect Alexa’s charming obliviousness to elicit a sarcastic response from me. But you know what? She actually cheered me up with that one hopeful line and her glowing white light. So now I’m evidently living in a future where my voice assistant actually has a voice that doesn’t annoy me.

That low-key friendliness is exactly what has made Alexa such a stunning success — that and the fact that we are learning to interact with her in the privacy of our own homes, instead of yelling voice prompts into a phone at the airport. (But who does that?)

Sophie Kleber, Huge
Sophie Kleber, Huge

It’s possible that I took my relationship with Alexa to the next level because the day before I flew home, I had a very interesting conversation with the human-centric technologist Sophie Kleber, Executive Director of Product and Innovation with Huge. She’s out front in the user experience and interaction design realms, conducting research and building approachable interfaces for Huge’s roster of mega-brand clients.

Philosophically, Kleber is bringing lots of thought on human-machine interaction. Her SXSW 2017 session on Designing Emotionally Intelligent Machines brought attention to emotion recognition software. And this year at SXSW 2018 she’ll be tackling “Ethical Personality Design: The Future of Human-Computer Interaction.” Referring to Huge’s experience designing conversational UIs, she’ll be looking at how humans like to talk to machines.

So you can see why I was fan-girling out after I spoke with her.

“I’ve thought a lot about why Alexa was such a success when poor Siri was hanging out for so long and no one wanted to talk to her,” Kleber said. “There are certain things in Siri’s personality that make her more Steve Jobs than helpful assistant.”

Siri definitely has an edge to her. Plus, we tend to be interacting with her in public, on our mobile devices. Which means she’s often distracted. (I listened to a woman say, “Hey Siri, call Valerie,” three times at the airport this weekend. I credit her with keeping her cool and using the same friendly tone every time she issued the command.)

Now that we’re all getting friendlier with various voice interfaces in the privacy of our homes and cars, I asked Kleber for her thoughts on what this new type of interaction means for the commercial environment. What’s going to happen in museums, schools, offices, and the like?

That’s where the “And” interfaces come in. As Kleber wrote in her Huge predictions for 2018, “‘And’ interfaces combine various input/output methods to make a user interaction as easy and seamless as possible, while using each channel in the way it can provide the most value.”

So, we might use voice to begin an interaction that is then elaborated on a video display. Or we might use touch control to trigger projection-mapping on a physical object, making the touch interface the means to another visual end, rather than the end itself. “It’s about putting the tangible back into the tangible world,” Kleber explained.

And that tangible world is changing as more people move through spaces with wireless earphones connected to their mobile devices. Soon it will be much easier to bring personal interaction into the public sphere, as apps naturally connect users with museum exhibits, retail environments, hospitality settings, learning tools and informational content.

Creating a seamless interaction between users and the built environment is of course an ideal of the AV and integrated experience designers in our industry, so this is where it gets fun. Where once we might have been asked to build an interactive kiosk, now we’ll be creating entire immersive experiences where visitors learn more in their own earphones without leaving the group experience of the ambient environment.

Digital signage, too, may take on more of the “personal bubble” vibe that we need to feel comfortable in a public interaction. We need to do some work here. “People are hesitant to step up and interact with screens in public spaces,” Kleber observed. “It’s out of context. There are buttons to push, and they don’t know what’s going to happen. Something might happen that’s embarrassing in front of other people.”

To help fix this, we need to think about the context of screen placement and/or its use as a connector to the environment around us. “What we are starting to experiment with is using screens in the real world as a manipulator of objects,” Kleber noted. When you pull attention away from the screen and trigger an action elsewhere, that brings what she and members of our own industry call “that little bit of magic” to the experience. It makes the interaction memorable and engaging.

On the flip side of that idea, Kleber would like to see more large-scale immersive and interactive projection walls. Video content that reacts to passersby or otherwise engages people in a friendly way is one way that technology can become more human, and maybe emotionally intelligent, too. Environments can be invigorating instead of distracting.

“I’m a strong believer in the idea of ambient technology,” Kleber said, “the idea that technology moves into the background and supports ambience in the physical world, instead of screens. We’ve exhausted that idea with more and louder messages.”

Sounds like a call for more AV integration. Alexa, let’s get to work.

About Kirsten Nelson

Kirsten Nelson has written about audio, video and experience design in all its permutations for more than 20 years. As a writer and content developer for AVIXA, Kirsten connects stories, people and technology through a variety of media. She also directs program content for the TIDE Conference and Technology Innovation Stage at InfoComm. For three years, she also created conversations around emerging media and experiential design at InfoComm's Center Stage. Prior to that, Kirsten was the editor of SCN magazine for 17 years.