Much has already been written about the Conversational User Interface (CUI). It’s impact on virtual assistants, convenience and search, and even the end of the graphical user interface (GUI) have all been explored, and for good reason.
CUI is the future. GUI made perfect sense when our computers were stationary, when they sat on desks and didn’t ride along in our pockets, and their functions were limited to basic computing, communication, and work. Things are different now. Indeed, comparing modern smartphones and laptops to the original desktops for which the GUI was developed and refined is like comparing a Tesla Roadster to a 1 horsepower wagon from the 1880s: one has descended from the other, sure, but enough generations have passed between them to leave one almost unrecognizable to the other.
Technology is a resource, and the user interface is the means by which we access that resource. The two must evolve together, but they don’t always do it at the same pace. Consider the history of the automobile and the combustion engine – the first engines and automobiles were tremendous technologies, but how could it be accessed, and utilized by a human being? At the time, it was by sitting on a wooden bench seat and manipulating a tiller to steer. Tiller steering made sense. It was how one turned a boat, so why shouldn’t it work on land? Tiller steering ultimately wasn’t the best option though, which is why we now have the steering wheel. As technologies, boats and cars represented a similar commodity: the ability to move, but the interface by which we accessed these two conveyances had to be different.
So as we come to grips with the significant differences between the kind of technology that GUI was developed for and the technology we have now, we must understand that our present technologies demand a new interface – one that is fully conversational rather than strictly visual: the CUI.
What we’ve covered up to this point has, to one degree or another, been discussed before, but there is an element of the CUI that is not discussed often enough – one that casts its future not only in the light of being the logical and best next-step for our devices, but as perhaps the most significant technological advancement for blind and visually impaired populations since Braille.
Even Playing Field
To say the blind have been left out of the digital revolution would be an overstatement. Chris Maury, CEO and Founder of Conversant Labs told me, “The iPhone is one of the greatest things that ever happened to the blind community.” But it would likewise be unreasonable to say that the needs of the blind and visually impaired community have been widely considered.
Think of your first memories with a computer. If you’re my age it might be sitting in front of a 64MB Packard-Bell, watching Windows 3.1 load up. If you’re older it might be looking at the green text of DOS. Younger readers may have eagerly watched the screen of a MacBook open before them, or walked into their school’s computer lab to find them filled with colorful iMac G3s. The point is that these experiences are all visual, from our first interactions with computers to the bulk of our encounters with them today in 2016, it is predominantly a visual tool. Thus a blind person has spent the past 30 years navigating technology that was not built for them. As technology has become irreplaceable in our lives, allowing us to do everything from get a job to pay our taxes, you could imagine that for a blind person, society has become increasingly like a foreign country. An entirely new world has been built around them but not for them. CUI is changing that.
For years, the most important piece of technology for making the GUI accessible to the blind has been the screenreader. A screenreader is a software application that translates graphical displays into speech using text-to-speech technology. These applications, apart from being slow and clunky, can cost up to $2,000 for a single license. Cost aside, the screenreader is indicative of two major issues facing the blind’s access to modern technology.
First, the visually impaired community has been left out from the beauty of computers, whose interfaces have been designed specifically to appeal to a sense (sight) that the blind do not have. That may seem trivial, that the beauty of technology is in its utility, not aesthetics. However I would argue that were it not for aesthetics and ease of use that GUI computers are fun for sighted users, the technology would be far less developed than it is today, simply because less people would use it.
The second issue the screenreader reveals is the computer-dominant nature of human-to-tech conversation. Screenreaders don’t use a CUI, but the technology is somewhat conversational – the screenreader reads back to you what is on the screen, and you navigate, telling it where to go next. The entirety of this action, however, happens on the computer’s terms. What the screenreader picks up is dictated by tags, headings, and descriptions, and the way the screenreader reads has nothing to do with how we like to listen, but with how it’s been programmed to read. Blind people have to learn to speak screenreader, and it should be the other way around.
We see this on a lesser scale with present conversational interfaces. You still can’t really talk to Siri like you’d talk to your friend at the desk next to you, but the maturation and wide-spread implementation of the CUI will change this. Companies like Conversant Labs who developed a fully-conversational shopping app for the blind, released an SDK that aims to give any developer the tools to make their apps conversational. SoundHound, most famous for their music-recognition app, have released Hound, a conversational app that speaks our language, can understand complex speech patterns, and respond to us coherently. The CUI has always been best for the blind community, but with new and exciting companies working hard to make it mainstream, and the increased coverage conversational interfaces have received recently, the market has finally caught up.
Market Dictates Change
Aspirations for a CUI have been around for a long time. If you want some proof, check out this Apple advertisement from 1987. But it’s not the vision of executives, nor the dreams of engineers that cements change – it’s the marketplace.
Unlike 1987, in 2016, the market is ready for the conversational interface. Ron Kaplan, who leads Nuance Communications’ NLU R&D Lab in Silicon Valley, writes in Wired, “We’re forcing the GUI into a mobile-interface world even as the information and tasks available to us continue to increase. [. . .] What we need now is to be able to simply talk with our devices. That’s why I believe it’s finally time for the conversational user interface.”
From The Jetsons, to Star Trek, to Nightrider – the ability to casually, and conversationally speak with our technology has been among the most common themes of science fiction and visions of a possible future. The reason why this has remained in the realms of sci-fi for so long is not only because the technology wasn’t there, but also because there was neither cultural demand, nor market need. Finally, in 2016, consumers need to have conversations with their devices as much as they need internal monologues. Computers left our desks long ago, and every iteration of technology since has brought them closer and closer to appendages, extensions of ourselves, without which we would be at a significant disability to communicate, connect, and explore.
For centuries people have imagined seeing the future. With the CUI you can talk to it. For sighted users, the GUI-dominant era has been incredible, gorgeous, and irrevocably useful, but for the blind, it’s been as if a new language became the lingua franca the world over, and it’s a tongue they will never be able to speak.
(Lead image source: Kārlis Dambrāns)