Sam Seely

Airpods: talking to yourself in public

How good does voice recognition need to get for us to start talking to ourselves in public?

There’s a lot of buzz these days around voice-as-an-interface, most of it centered on Amazon Echo and the use cases it enables within the home. For good reason, the home is the one place where a voice interface---hands-free, always-listening---trumps mobile. At least for now.

Smartphone makers aren’t going to relinquish the space so easily. They have a lot at stake here (see Tim Cook’s ode to Homekit in yesterday’s event) and are starting to think about how they’ll design for the hands-free, always-listening voice experience that consumers are learning to expect with products like Echo.

We got a peek into this thinking yesterday when Apple announced its new wireless earbuds, the Airpods. With a light tap, they engage Siri and the user can demand away. Not exactly hands-free. Still, better than what consumers are used to with Siri today.

As the headphone jack controversy settles, I think we’ll see Apple start pushing the Siri-Airpod-voice use case more and more. Expect new media portraying the young, urban go-getter, on the move, never without an Airpod in an ear.

Still, hurdles to the chic voice-on-the-go use case remain.

For one, is voice recognition good enough to consistently pick out our requests in the fray of the L train? How about other crowded, awkward places? Will we have to shout at ourselves in public? IS THAT SUCH A BAD THING? Yet to be seen, but I’m bullish on the technology getting there (without shouting as a requisite.)

The other question, is it chic? Will people subject themselves to the dangling appendage of the Airpod? Is a (nearly) hands-free voice interface worth always having something hanging from your ear? That’s the psychological consumer preference element that I’m less willing to bet on.

When it’s designers in a room, the use case is always worth the sartorial secession. When it’s real consumers on the street, not so much.

Still, with the Airpod and continued good news from the forefront of voice recognition, it’s not hard to imagine a near future in which talking to ourselves in public is the norm. When we hop onto an elevator, and the scene looks like this.