Apple’s Rumored Virtual Assistant Could Outshine the New iPhone

Christina Bonnington

Buzz surrounding Apple’s Tuesday event has never been higher, as consumers eagerly await the announcement of the next generation iPhone. But the new hardware could take a back seat to a bigger announcement: a potential voice control software feature that could be released with the latest version of iOS 5.

The voice control feature — referred to by Apple pundits and bloggers as “Assistant” — could change the way people interact with their iPhones, using conversation with an artificially intelligent assistant to help make decisions and schedule daily activities.

“This is an area in which Apple has been trailing Google and is playing catch-up,” Forrester analyst Charles Golvin said in an interview. “Similar to the notifications improvements [in the iOS 5 beta] and the ability to use the volume control button as a camera shutter.”

This type of service has been a long time coming for Apple. Former Apple CEO John Sculley first described such a user experience feature in his 1987 book Odyssey. He called the concept the “Knowledge Navigator,” and Apple subsequently released several video demos over the next several years illustrating how the idea would work. The Knowledge Navigator concept takes place on a tablet-computer (decades before Apple unveiled the iPad), incorporating advanced text-to-speech functionality, a powerful speech comprehension system and a multi-touch gesture interface much like that which is used in iOS.

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