Siri may be Apple's chatty digital assistant darling, but is it the kind of friend a modern mobile soldier will turn to with a family crisis, one best understood by a fellow soldier? Enter the U.S. Army's Sgt. Star, a voice tech system the Army was using on its recruitment web page. It's been through smartphone boot camp and emerged a full-blown app.
Made by Next IT, Ask Sgt. Star launched Wednesday on Android and is expected to hit iPhones in January 2013. The tech serves as an acknowledgement that Siri (along with Google's own voice tech) has pushed the expectation envelope for digital interaction. As Next IT says: "Conversation becomes the new user interface." That is, we want to talk to our phones in a meaningful way.
The Sgt. Star app is also much more than a smart recruitment tool that may appeal to the tech-savvy youth of today. Since inception on the GoArmy site in 2006 he's "answered more than 11-million sensitive, personal and potentially life-altering questions."
Next IT's CTO Denise Caron told Fast Company that "as we evolved Sgt. Star it's not only supporting recruiters but also a lot of questions that soldiers and their family would have. The evolution with mobile was really to improve the user experience of all that. So much so that the GoArmy site now wants to revamp the site to make it more like the mobile app we're launching."
Star goes a little deeper than Siri can with its generic interface, Caron pointed out, and "one of the things we do that you won't see on Siri on the mobile app is the ability to have clarifiers and be able to continue the conversation in case speech recognition doesn't work ... Sgt. Star will basically ask clarification questions and help you narrow down what you're trying to say."
Star users, somewhat surprisingly, also ask it more intimate questions than you may think—and that's a situation that's likely to expand now that Star is an app and can be accessed pretty much everywhere. Caron explained that at first this was a surprise to Next IT too, but one "reason it's been so popular is that it can answer some of the awkward questions, especially if you're a woman and you're trying to figure out if you're going to be based with men in the same room. They like the tool to be anonymous from that perspective."
In terms of the tech, Sgt. Star works much like Apple's Siri does—speech recognition is a commodity (in this case bought from Google Speech), and anonymized voice samples spoken to the app are shuttled off to the recognition system before Star replies. And like Siri, Star has a very definite personality. His personality was originally built to attract the 18-20-year-old bracket, as befits the original recruitment intent behind Star, and it's such an important part of the app that "of the thousand knowledge units [comprising Star's systems] about 20% of them are to do with personality." In fact "personality is the biggest thing we've learned since we started with Sgt. Star. Answering questions is one thing, but if the agent didn't have a personality most of the time it didn't work." Perhaps a lesson there for Google, which is pursuing a very impersonal voice assistant style.
As an example of a deep-dive personal digital assistant, you can also see Sgt. Star's app as an indication of how other companies will use voice assistants in the future. Caron explained that upcoming Next IT clients "coming up in the next year will have a lot more personalization to them, and we have the ability to be very Siri-like in terms of broad knowledge or to go very deep in certain knowledge domains." A lot of health care clients use Next IT's systems as a user-friendly patient interface that can contain a lot of personal information, and the push into mobile apps mean that these systems will expand into a much more personal assistant role including medication and disease management.
We've long suspected that voice tools like Siri and Sgt. Star are the future of mobile device interfaces, and Caron reminded us of this fact when she noted that in terms of web tools when Sgt. Star was first created the Army had a manned back-end chat tool alongside it, but Sgt. Star became so capable that he was able to displace that and now is the only chat interface available.