Imagine a world where devices are so smart they surface the information you're looking for the moment you think of it. An emerging field, anticipatory computing takes its cues from various sources to determine what consumers want before they can even type it.
One of the leading companies in this space is Google- and Samsung-backed Expect Labs, which has been working on technology that can listen in on conversations and potentially surface relevant answers to questions before you ask them. A hypothetical scenario: You're in the car with your friends, talking about how you're in the mood for Mexican food—and Expect Labs's technology, which has been listening to your entire conversation, surfaces directions to a highly rated taquería nearby. That future hasn't arrived, though the company will release its first iPad app Thursday: a speech-activated search engine called MindMeld that, in its current form, doesn't really anticipate anything yet.
When Expect Labs made an appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the San Francisco-based company made a big splash with an early prototype, capturing the attention of Google, Samsung, Intel, mobile operator Telefonica, and cable company Liberty Global—among others. "We got more inbound interest than any products I've been involved with in the past... We said it's not ready yet, and they said, 'Okay, we'll invest in your technology," says CEO and founder Timothy Tuttle, who received his doctorate from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and previously cofounded video search startup Truveo, which AOL acquired in 2006.
The original idea behind MindMeld was to create a supercharged Siri of sorts, analyzing speech and producing accurate answers. Yet because Siri and natural-language processing still operate within a high margin of error, Tuttle said, that future is still fairly far off. Instead, as a user talks, the MindMeld iPad app takes notes in the left-hand column of the screen, while surfacing a variety of possible search results—including photos, videos, articles, and web pages—in the right-hand column, so at the very least users can find the answers they're looking for within a few taps of their fingers.
In addition to serving as an intelligent assistant, MindMeld also features a built-in conferencing mode that can analyze voice conversations within a group of up to eight people, all of them using the app on their respective iPads.
Currently, people can only use the app if they log in with their Facebook accounts.
Though Tuttle likes to joke about the nefarious ways Expect Labs can use the data it collects, he says MindMeld does not record audio. According to Tuttle, users have full control of the information stored by the app, and can delete MindMeld sessions and the data that lives on the company's servers at any point. "The idea of an intelligent assistant listening to your conversations can be creepy for people," he says.
An earlier prototype of this technology was more seamless: It listened to users' conversations whether they activated the service or not. Expect Labs has tried to assuage privacy concerns by introducing friction. The app requires users to press a button on the screen to activate MindMeld's listening and analyzing capabilities. "It's all in the users' control. We're not Big Brother. We're not recording phone calls. We're not doing it secretly," Tuttle says.
There's still a large gap between where MindMeld is and the distance it has yet to go. "In a couple years when you're wearing a wristwatch that's intelligent, Google Glass, have smart panels and a Nest thermostat on every wall, you're going to need the technology to make everything work," Tuttle says. Anticipatory computing, for example, could lead to a future where the dial on the thermometer turns up just by mentioning that you are cold. As it stands, the MindMeld experience is not as smooth as the company would like it to be, especially since it doesn't run in the background but requires finger activation. But strong interest from key players suggests anticipatory computing could create a creepy future where devices are always listening to you.
With the launch of a developer platform in the coming month or so, Expect is inching ever closer toward that future.