What are Virtual Assistants?

As voice recognition and gesture-based technologies advance and more recently, converge, we are moving away from the notion of interaction with our devices via a pointer and keyboard. Virtual assistants are the natural end goal of natural user interfaces (NUI), and build on developments in interfaces across the spectrum of engineering, computer science, and biometrics. A new class of smart televisions will be among the first devices to make comprehensive use of the idea. While crude versions of virtual assistants have been around for some time, we have yet to achieve the level of interactivity seen in Apple's classic video, Knowledge Navigator. The Apple iPhone’s Siri and Android's Jellybean are recent mobile-based examples, and allow users to control all the functions of the phone, participate in lifelike conversations with users, and more. Microsoft Research is devoting considerable resources to developing NUIs. Virtual assistants for learning are clearly in the long-term horizon, but the potential of the technology to add substance to informal modes of learning is compelling.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • - Tony.Brandenburg Tony.Brandenburg Mar 2, 2013 One expects that as personalised learning is further developed that virtual assistants will play a key role. In some respects we see this beginning now in special needs and second/third language classrooms now. (I smile as Siri, answers my questions and includes my name!)
  • Just as we have personal trainers, mentors, life coaches, etc., perhaps, we'll have virtual assistances who can somehow view our classes, then provide us a few instructional tips. Something similar to automated grading can do with essays. This allows for feed-in without judgement, same as when we watch ourselves on video. Essay grader: www.paperrater.com - michael.lambert michael.lambert Mar 4, 2013
  • A virtual assistant might take over some of the 'product' duties that are currently incumbent of the student.- jmorrison jmorrison Mar 4, 2013
  • - helen.padgett helen.padgett Mar 5, 2013 Natural user interface (NUI) is focused on leveraging skills people have already acquired (precise finger dexterity, etc.) to use and navigate technology rather than asking the user to acquire other skills, such as using a mouse or keyboard, to interact with the technology.
  • It might mean it is becoming less important for students to learn to touch-type.- paul paul Mar 6, 2013

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • - Tony.Brandenburg Tony.Brandenburg Mar 2, 2013I think we need to remember the VA/NUIs will rely on stored and readily accessible profile information, which in education terms will include results, statistics, preferred models of learning..
  • - helen.padgett helen.padgett Mar 5, 2013 Microsoft Research has been investigating natural user interface (NUI) for a number of years. Their website shares a variety of new user interfaces —utilizing gestures, machine anticipation, contextual awareness, and rich, 3-D environments, both real and virtual, and often immersive— that will make computing easier, more inviting, and increasingly intuitive. http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/news/features/030210-nui.aspx
  • - helen.padgett helen.padgett Mar 5, 2013 I think this topic might be combined with Natural User Interfaces

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on teaching, learning, or creative expression?

  • - Tony.Brandenburg Tony.Brandenburg Mar 2, 2013 In many respects this area brings together many of the identified Horizon focus areas. The need to provide learning experiences in a model that is acceptable to the user, with an interface that recognises individual differences has potential.
  • - helen.padgett helen.padgett Mar 5, 2013 Apple and Google’s operating systems are platforms on top of which the things a person needs sit. When Apple and Google make their virtual assistants Siri and Now work more effectively, that could be replaced by a much more centralized approach. Want something? Ask Apple Siri or turn to Google Now and they’ll do the work of dealing with all those Web pages and apps for the teacher or student.
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(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

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