You Talkin’ To Me? Well I’m The Only One Here.

What is the Great American Pastime? Baseball? Football? Soccer? Actually, it’s none of those. Our great pastime is sitting passively and yelling as other people actively run around. And while shouting from the bleachers is fun, it’s even more fun to sit and shout at the TV.

In addition to yelling at TV sports, we yell at reality television, talent shows, local newscasters, politicians (my fav) and anything else that appears on the screen. Unfortunately, although cathartic, shouting at the TV accomplishes nothing else. In particular, and I point this out in the gentlest of ways, the TV cannot hear you. Soon, that will change.

In an era of Ford Sync, Kinect and Siri (the iPhone 4S app), voice recognition has gone mainstream. Suddenly, talking to inanimate objects is not necessarily a sign of psychosis, and might accomplish something useful. Thus, desperate to distinguish their TVs (and other products) from the competition, manufacturers will start adding voice recognition as a way to control the devices. I’ve seen plenty of indecipherable GUIs, and no one appreciates too-often clunky remotes. The idea of simply telling your TV to tune to HBO and insert a PiP of the Steelers game is pretty appealing.

Voice recognition is far from perfect. Already, hearing Siri endlessly respond “I don’t understand” is suitably enraging. In the case of a TV, it must differentiate your commands from other conversation in the room, and ignore whatever voices are coming from the TV itself. For starters, this might necessitate planting microphones around your room — kind of creepy. Another approach is an app that lets you talk to your phone, and it controls the TV; Comcast, for example, might add voice control to its widely used cable-box remote app. Or, maybe we’ll see a new kind of handheld remote that has voice recognition instead of a phalanx of buttons. One issue: a roomful of devices each responding to voice commands would be worse than herding a bunch cats. However it is implemented, look for speech control as the next big thing.

The downside to voice-controlled TVs, of course, is that it will remove the last remnant of physical exercise that we Americans still get. Our fingers, finely toned from countless hours of remote button pushing, will begin to atrophy. In no time, our buff index fingers will no longer stand straight and tall. Such is the price of progress. 

On the other hand, I’m worried that the new voice-control systems won’t work as advertised. There’s nothing more frustrating than flaky voice recognition. If they balk at our commands, there will be a huge uptick in the other Great American Pastime – throwing things at the TV.

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