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How a Barbie doll prepares your child for the future

Mike Elgan | March 1, 2016
In the future, every computer, appliance and vehicle will have a conversational UI (just like Barbie).

Likewise, a few years from now, we'll use computers and the Internet in ways that make no sense today. The dominance of conversational UIs sounds less appealing than how we use computers today. But that's because we can't picture what that will be like.

Lucas Ives, who works as head of conversation engineering at ToyTalk (which makes the conversation engine for Hello Barbie), told me that "in five or 10 years you'll be walking through your kitchen, and your refrigerator will say: 'Your milk is going to go bad in three days, do you want me to order some more for you?' "

Ives' example is a perfect illustration of three ways the conversational UI will change our lives. First, the interface is a conversation. Second, the conversation is with the refrigerator -- the Internet of Things will turn everything into an Internet-connected computer. And third, the refrigerator can start the conversation. Pre-emptive interaction today is a novelty, found mainly in Google Now. In the future, many objects, devices and apps will initiate conversations with us.

In fact, the conversational UI trend has already begun.

The conversational UI has got everybody talking

Quartz this month introduced an app that gives you the news in a conversational UI. It simply chats with you, as if you were getting the news from a friend via text. It tells you a little bit about a new story, then if you ask to hear more, it will go into more detail, complete with photos, links and, eventually, ads.

While the possible user input is narrow (ultimately you tell it that you want to hear more about the current story or you want to move on to the next story), the experience is just like texting with a friend, where the subject happens to be the news and the friend happens to be a fast-typing journalist who's banging out news stories just for you.

At Mobile World Congress last week, Sony unveiled a range of products, including something called Xperia Ear, which is an "intelligent earbud," and Xperia Agent, an Amazon Echo-like virtual assistant appliance. In both cases, it shows that Sony is preparing for the conversational UI future.

Sony's Xperia Ear video is a perfect illustration of the subtle shift to conversational interfaces. In the video, the users are doing normal things like texting, making calls and getting directions. But instead of doing these things directly, they're asking a virtual assistant to do it. And the assistant responds with the information.

One of the surprise darlings of the Los Angeles Auto Show in November was a Silicon Valley startup called Capio, which makes a conversational UI on a chip for cars (and other appliances). If you visit their website and watch the short video, you'll get a sense of what the future conversational UI of the future will be like inside a car.


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