Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Google Voice Search and the Quest for a Tricorder

Let's face it, Gene Roddenberry invented the perfect universe. Right there, back in Star Trek TOS, they had everything we could ever want.

Matter transport: check
Faster-than-light : check
Flawless communications: check
Magic sensing devices: check
Voice activated computer: check

images.jpgWe're not doing bad on a few of those. Stephen Hawking's leading up the warp drive effort, so I know that is in good hands. Quantum entanglement is getting us some openings into the matter transport, at least of a sort. If you are a single photon, at least. The communication thing is going OK, as long as you are a Verizon customer, and with the iPhone (or G1 or whatever pretender to the throne you want to evangelize), we've got a device that has at least the look-and-feel of a Tricorder.

Though I still find that my iPhone is unable to detect the presence of aline life forms, no matter what combination of buttons I press.

images-1.jpgSo when I downloaded the new upgrade of Google.app to my Tricorder/iPhone, I was curious to see just how it handled. The big news was voice activated search. And, granted, having a small handheld device show you a map to the nearest market where you could buy some nice bulk tea leaves is not quite the same as saying "Tea, Earl Grey, Hot" and having a cup of the stuff magically appear, but it would be a start.

And yes, I know that I just mixed my generations. Back off, fanboy.

I saw the news -- it was available -- went to the AppStore and downloaded -- and promptly had to deal with the beginnings of a very busy week for a few hours. But then, the moment of much excitement arrived and, while coming back from checking out the setup in one of the training rooms here at the office, I paused, tapped the Google icon, pressed the little microphone image, held the phone to my lips and said:

"Calories burned climbing stairs."

A neat little waveform appeared on the screen. Apple's sleek circling dashes icon appeared for a moment.

Search Results: "Chlamydia."

Woah there, Google, woah! Do you know something I should? Becuase I've got to say that that result was definitely NSFW.

I proceeded to climb said stairs (eleven flights worth) without knowing how much good I was doing my self for the act (a number I actually continue to remain ignorant of because I'm fairly convinced that it will prove to be much smaller than I hope it to be and therefore the knowledge would actually prove entirely dis-motivating). I was disappointed, but resolved to try again later.

And, later, I had another chance. I figured that perhaps the clever developers at Google had intended this thing to be used for more typical phone searches, the sort of things that you'd search for while driving hands-free.

"Red Robin"

There is a dirty bird just across the street, actually, so I thought this might be throwing the app a nice, easy underhand ball. This time the results were beautiful. Red Robin's corporate site, directions to the one across the street (it linked in with the location services to know where I was -- take that, Roddenberry!), phone number ready to go.

So is Google Voice Search biased towards weight gain rather than a healthier lifestyle? Or was some other force at work. In any case, it was all rather disappointing. Oh well, we are even further from the Tea-Earl-Grey-Hot stage of technology than I expected. Unless you want a burger, and in that case we're fine.

I hid. I sulked. I typed all my searches. I made tea using bags taken from cupboards and hot water from sinks.

But you know time passes -- and time heals all wounds. Even those deep cutting injuries caused by disappointment in an overhyped new product.

So this morning I fired up Google Voice Search. Just to reassure myself of its inadequacy.

"Calories burned climbing stairs"

Search Results: "Calories burned climbing stairs"

You've got to be kidding me, right?

"Cosmic microwave background"

Search Results: "Cosmic microwave background"

Whoa, there, what are you guys at the Googleplex up to? Rolling out a revised backend, perhaps? In any case, I had to take my hat off. A tool that I was about to consign to the dubious utility of enabling hands free searches while driving -- a convenience that would still leave the technique of viewing search results undefined and unrefined -- suddenly grew into an interesting and potentially powerful interactive device. Now I can sit alone in a corner, mumbling to myself, learning about astrophysics!

Now if we can get those folks over at Google working double time on the rest of the situation, perhaps get Hawking to join the staff even, we should really start making some progress. And once that gets underway, paltry tools like voice search will seem like noting.

Particularly when you'll be able to just slingshot the Enterprise back in time and go fiture out exactly what WAS going on back there in the epoch of reionization.