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Robots and Voice Interfaces Making the Smart Home Chaotic

February 26, 2016, 8:35 PM UTC

I work from home. Alone. But my house is sometimes noisier than an office with my Roomba announcing the conclusion of its vacuuming job with a few triumphant bars of music, my washing machine signaling a similar joy at finishing the wash cycle with its own musical burst, and my Amazon Echo chiming in with her two cents whenever I ask for it (and sometimes when I don’t).

As our devices rely more on voice interfaces and we welcome robots into our homes, there’s a looming worry among product designers that future connected devices will all want to chime in with their own personalities, making life at home loud, confusing, and killing the benefits of voice as a means of interaction.

The fear over voice as a user interface were recently expressed in an essay by product designer Cennydd Bowles. He praised using voice interactions for some tasks, but he lamented the likelihood that designers would start adding voice where it wasn’t practical, expecting people to remember complex commands to get anything done.

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Then the marketing departments get involved.

But I worry about what happens when the marketers get stuck in. I mean… some of my best friends and all that, but marketers can’t resist an opportunity to force a damn relationship on you. Truth is, I don’t want to talk to most of my products. They’re dumb utilities. Close and forget. I want a spade, not the experience of digging.

The syntax issues already come up in my house as I struggle to recall which series of words opens up the Bingo app on Amazon’s Alexa or what words I need to say to tell my Tesla to start mapping out a route to a certain address. Side note, if you ever want an exercise in frustration, try to get your car or Echo to find songs by “The Weeknd.” Syntax aside, brand personalities via voice is something that Mark Rolston, founder of Argodesign, says clients are already asking for. And yes, it could be a problem in the making.

For example, right now when someone asks the Amazon Echo (AMZN) to take action on behalf of a brand, such as asking the Domino’s app on the Echo to order a pizza, the entire interaction takes place with Alexa, the “personality” for the Echo. But saying “Alexa, open Domino’s and place my Easy Order” runs into some problems for the brand in that the experience is mediated through another brand.

For more on Alexa, watch our video.

“Today, they are happy to be able to play, but eventually as they rise to prominence they will ask for [their own voice],” said Rolston. Driving all of this, he expects, will be Apple’s push to bring Siri into a more prominent role. If the next generation iPhone doesn’t have a headphone jack, Rolston predicts it will be because Apple envisions people walking around with a Bluetooth headset that effectively puts Siri in people’s ears all the time.

At that point, brands will have to figure out their specific voices and personalities, and yes, he suspects they will overdo it. “And as many more brands live through voice and have a common existence in that mode, then they will clamor for human qualities. They don’t want a cold, hard, get-her-done voice. They want character,” he said.

Character doesn’t have to come simply from a voice. It can also come through tones or music on connected devices. R2-D2 is a great example. Think about how many appliances or products in your house currently make a beep or chime to catch your attention. Imagine this magnified as they gain more capabilities and have more to say.

Carla Diana, who has designed robots such as the Neato vacuum, agrees that the future of personality rich voice interactions and machines will likely be overwhelming before it settles down. That’s partly because designers and marketers like to envision their devices existing in center stage, alone. They don’t want to have to consider their device as just one of many that a homeowner has to interact with and manage.

“Right now robots are a novelty, so if someone has a robotic vacuum cleaner right now it’s probably the first one they have,” she said. “Your first robot in your house is going to be a pretty special relationship, but when you have a few of them, you kind of need them to work things out among themselves. Maybe the coffeemaker is a little more in the background, whereas your entertainment speaker robot is more center stage.”

But she said getting to that ideal is tough because there are no standards right now because manufacturers would like to think consumers buy their devices all from one vendor and don’t want to play nicely with rivals. There are robots, such as the Nest thermostat, which programs itself based on your schedule, that are silent and unobtrusive. But there are likely to be many more products that scream for your attention in some form or fashion—and that will get old.

There is a silver lining here. Rolston believes that as designers (and marketers) figure out how to use voice effectively, it will open up a variety of new ways to use computing in everyday tasks much like touch-enabled methods to interact with mobile apps as well as bring computing to more places where screens can’t go.

“Voice is great for short, brief interactions with a computer when your hands are occupied,” said Rolston. “I believe it will be a deeply interesting version of computing.”