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Feb 2007

Are voice user interfaces safe?

Not that I want to promote “Nuance,” or that I have anything against this excellent company; and one must admit that they have been quite adept of late at having themselves talked about. But was the following a good idea or will it backfire on their marketing department? Please judge for yourself after viewing Amazing Race: Distracted Driving, posted on YouTube.

The clip presents two fictitious persons driving: one equipped with an ordinary voice activated mobile phone and the other with a “mere” iPhone, or worse than that, the latest top-of-the-line Samsung. Each is accomplishing a list of tasks while driving and the question being asked is which of the two voice activated systems is better for road safety?

With a flagrant disregard for public safety, this clip proves that by putting a + b together one can conclude that a voice activated interface is safer for the driver, and by extension pedestrians, than a touch-tone interface device.

I believe in voice-activated interfaces but I doubt if this exercise is the best way to sell the concept in this day and age of public security awareness: is it really necessary to order sushi from behind the wheel? Is it absolutely necessary to text Solange while driving? Is it not best to arrive at one’s destination without incident by keeping both hands on the steering wheel at all times?

Allowing one to think that voice activated interfaces solve the problem of road safety for drivers using cell phones is disputable, if not litigious. Our attention is much solicited when driving. The moment a new stimulus intervenes our resources become divided. The act of doing something on the phone while driving, regardless of the method of interaction with the phone, reduces attention available for what is happening on the road. This is a truism indeed, and a fact reported in a multitude of studies scattered across the Internet.

So, don’t forget, two hands on the wheel! The Quebec Provincial Police will love you all the more for it!

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