On Enablers

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50 Shades of Gray owes its popularity to the Kindle, and dubstep would die without iTunes.

Now, these don’t need the technology. You could read 50 Shades in paperback, and you could listen to dubstep without headphones.

But you won’t.

You don’t want to be seen reading smut on the morning bus. You don’t want your soft-rock top-40 coworkers judging your bass drops.

The technology enabled a dirty book to make #1 on the Times, and enabled the rise of aggressive electronica. It wasn’t the processing power or the HD display or the megabit wireless Internet. It was just the form-factor and nothing more. The Kindle just removed the jacket from the book. The iPhone just lets you listen privately.

When the media approaches a new technology, they expect that it to enable the impossible. That virtual-reality headset will let you sculpt 3D clay. That 3D printer will replace your Amazon orders. That depth camera will let you explore an art gallery using your personal gesture-controlled drone.

But the real-world impact is always more mundane. Successful consumer products enable options that were already technically possible, but not appropriate. That’s what makes them successful – they pop the cork off pent-up demand, not facilitate an esoteric, cutting-edge niche.

The next time you see a futuristic product, don’t speculate about the next-generation Star Trek possibilities. Think about something you’d love to do, but don’t because it’s embarrassing or a pain in the ass, that would be smoother with the technology.

This article’s picture was shamelessly ripped off Jeff Wheeler.

A Pain in the Parse

I’ve pushed waves of tweaks to my Voice-Activated Timer Glassware since putting it on GitHub, and nearly all of them patch corner cases in Google’s speech-to-text. There are a lot of these.

Behold madness itself.

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“1&a half hours”?! What the actual hell?

Google’s voice recognition is nondeterministic like Guy Fieri is overweight. My parsing code has no fewer than five special cases for non-numeric versions of “1” alone, and that’s using case-insensitive matching. There’s no rhyme or reason for how Google picks syntax. Sometimes it’s “one and a half hours”. Sometimes it’s “1 and a half hours”. Sometimes it’s “1&a half hours”, which is on its own level of short-bus derpitude.

You know what would be nice? Deterministic voice recognition.

You know what would be better? On-device, restricted-vocabulary voice recognition. My innocent, morally-wholesome users, whom I respect greatly, have to wait five seconds for a server turnaround to find that Google has mangled their crisp speech into unrecognizable bullcrap.

Thanks to my users and their preoccupation with bug reports, it’s actually getting pretty bulletproof by now. Download the APK, use it yourself, and maybe you too will find a new corner case to call your own!