Siri seems to be the hardest word


Posted by in March's Magazine

I troubleshoot technology. Anything with a chip in it suits me as a way of making a living. Increasingly televisions of the bygone tube age (40 kilos, or the equivalent of a white rhino calf, being not unusual) make way for slimline fifty-inch waifs, weighing less than a six-year-old but about as smart. A recent call: “Can you help, my set’s down, and life’s not the same without TV.” I couldn’t, but paused to refer her to a repair outfit, and realised the relationship we still have with the idiot box. Indeed, it’s only its absence that makes us realise as much.

My viewing patterns are, compared to my mid-forties peers, increasingly mainstream. A dabble in music and extreme sports on YouTube, Blu-Rays of TV director Alan Clarke’s entire oeuvre, and one hundred and sixteen episodes of Tales Of The Unexpected. Apparently, there’s been some news out there, and there’s been a referendum and a US election, but I wouldn’t know anything about that. Soaps are for the bathroom and I just don’t do adverts anymore so that rules out all On Demand services (a wet dream lock-in for advertisers) save the BBC’s, god bless ‘em!

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Radio, satellite, cable, Freeview, streaming (Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Video, Love Film, Sony Entertainment Network), not to mention the illicit market in black market media, all offer mind-numbing choices. Torrent site content is easily viewable if copied onto a USB key and married to an ever-welcoming Blu-ray player. ISPs block sites but even children can overcome restrictions and pirates become anonymous on line in two clicks of a Tunnel Bear VPN (look it up).

This raises two questions, if content is stolen without payment who pays the creatives to create and, if a division has arisen between the under fifties who blink as easily as they source any show they want, and the over sixties who struggle to use the kit – who’s helping the pensioners?

A client of mine recently was recently bewildered whilst trying to navigate the BBC’s popular On Demand service iPlayer. Namely, the user interface, three rows – Function, Program, Show. As you move from one to the other the content shifts. As you change channel or category, it shifts again to (you guessed it) Channel or Programme category.

However, put yourself in the mind of a retired professional lady, keen to check out Jack and Victor’s latest antics on BBC Scotia’s return of Still Game. “There’s a pic, so I head toward it yes?” Yes, but pause too long weary traveller on Category, or track right instead of down, and you might end up watching Country File (Factual) or the tots’ Timmy Time (Childrens’). Resulting in a pained, “Where’s Still Game gone now?”

You see the problem? Logic isn’t for all, and even though brains love to make patterns they fray as hairs grey. Good design cannot accommodate confusion of all user groups if it’s trying to please the whole population. A spoon stirs tea, eats yoghurt. It’s easy to use because it’s a spoon. Delivery of an ever changing, body of programmes to an audience of viewers ranging from young kids to those who have received their telegram from the Queen is nigh on impossible. One half of this parameter struggles daily to see, hear, remember and develop new skills. I know this because it’s the client base I work with.

So, is it getting better? Today I introduced an eighty-eight-year-old to Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant in (good) Windows 10 and (excellent) Windows Phone. It’s a pretty good voice – sounds like a female BBC newsreader – and if you want to hear a shite joke make a hairdresser’s appointment, it’ll breezily tell you direct, Or, if you need to know who Jarvis Cocker or Lily Langtree are it’ll probably cop out and throw up an Edge search result. I hear it whispering: I heard what you said but have you thought of using the web to find out instead of pestering me?

In the TV context we’ve become so used to On Demand that it feels weird to sit down, watch a show, and then have it interrupted by a Sheffield store worker (cos they’re cheaper than an actor) telling you about Christmas offers at Tesco.

Natural language interfaces, reliable speech recognition and good speech synthesis are in the here and now and that’s an astonishing thing to say for someone who was blown away by Quicksilva’s 1986 Max Headroom game – the winners prize being Max himself, delivering a 30 second spiel of impenetrable shit after twelve hours of excruciating gameplay. Or, alternately, getting blue lips from using a voice recognition unit amidst a family threatening to kill me if I uttered the words “up, down, left, right, go!” more than twenty thousand times a day.

We have a voice, we recognise speech, and TV control uses a specialised closed vocabulary. It was good enough for The Golden Shot, but still causes problems for older clients. My advice to anyone bamboozled by speaking tech is to be curious, press that button and explore. If you’ve accidentally switched the box off, ask a friendly neighbourhood tech, i.e. me, to help. Alternately, ask any passing 12 year old to show you what to do, the solution might be simpler than you think.

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