Thin, portable, and talkative. That’s how computers tended to be portrayed when I was a kid.
Though many of the devices were seen in futuristic TV shows and films, over the past few years they’ve edged a lot closer to reality than most of us would have imagined.
Indeed, the least specced tablet is infinitely more capable than the electronic pad which Captain Kirk would sign in the original Star Trek.
But one area where current tech has lagged behind the promises of the big and small screens is voice control.
For the past week or so I’ve been playing with an iPhone 4S, the latest version of Apple’s top-selling handset, which includes Siri, the sort-of artificial intelligent personal assistant.
Capable of reading and creating text messages, searching the web on spoken command and adding events to your diary, Siri feels like the beginning of a major change in how we interact with technology.
The end of the stylus brought us closer to our gadgets.
No-one would invent a microwave or washing machine which we had to control with a stick, yet for years supposedly ‘smart’ phones and PDAs needed annoying, fiddly little plastic sticks to do as we told them.
The introduction of finger-based touch control meant we were directly interfacing with our gadgets.
Depending on your point of view, that change drove or coincided with a huge increase in the take-up of such devices.
Personally, I believe the loss of those plastic pointers removed some of the geekiness from smartphones and this helped drive take-up.
I also think Siri-style voice control will radically transform how we use, and see, technology.
On paper Siri is ‘just’ a vocal front end for a bunch of APIs and search results, presented with a dash of humour courtesy of Apple’s programmers.
But used for an hour or so, he/she/it rapidly becomes a personality with which you genuinely feel yourself to be conversing.
Some of the personality stems from witty standard responses, but the ‘feels like a real person’ element comes from the fact that Siri has multiple ways of answering the same, or related, questions, remembers and understands context.
For example, ask Siri what the weather is like in London (I use my phone with the location services switched off to preserve battery life) and then ask another weather related question, Siri remembers you were talking about London so doesn’t prompt for a location.
But Siri’s cleverer even than that.
Asked whether it will snow or rain on a given day, Siri will provide the answer based on its weather feeds.
If you want to ask about the chances of the same condition on another day, you can just ask Siri (for example) ‘What about Tuesday?’
If you were asking a friend about the weather, you wouldn’t usually feel it necessary to keep restating the location or condition being discussed.
Having to do so in order to pull information from your phone would constantly remind you that what you’re talking to is actually just a dumb device.
Because Siri is clever enough to know that your next weather questions relate to the location or condition you previously asked it about, you don’t have to learn a whole new way of talking.
You can converse with your iPhone just as would a real person.
And if voice control and interaction is to take off, it’s important people don’t feel like total tits talking to their device in heavily structured sentences, delivered in weird, monotonous tones.
But Siri can do more than answer questions by pulling in data from a known source, for example, at your request it will search specific sites for desired information.
You can ask Siri to search Bing.com or Google.com, specifying the search engine not in a preference panel but as part of the voice command.
He (for in the UK Siri is male) then opens your web browser on the page requested with the search already carried out.
Suddenly we can all be Mr Spock asking the Enterprises’s computer to retrieve and display the answer to a specific enquiry.
In the US (where Siri is a woman), Siri can do even more, including searching for nearby businesses and checking maps for you.
It’s clear Apple are planning to make Siri a big part of our daily life.
It’s easy to imagine asking him to check when the miscreant courier is meant to be arriving with our Christmas present shopping, or have him browse RadioTimes.com and tell us when Casualty is next on.
But even those examples are a mere fraction of what it’ll be able to do as the technology develops.
If that doesn’t excite you, you’re far less of a sad geek than I.