Time to say hello to another digital assistant. Ahead of the Galaxy S8 launch announcement coming at the end of this month, Samsung has announced Bixby, a new voice assistant that will go far beyond what the company had done with S Voice. Like other digital assistants from Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, Bixby will be based on artificial intelligence and cloud computing, but don’t expect Bixby to manage your calendar — Samsung has other challenges in mind.
In fact, it might be better not to call Bixby an assistant at all. Instead of managing emails, texts, calendar events, and reminders, Bixby is meant to be an alternate form of control for touch devices. Samsung has played around with this idea a lot over the years, implementing motion and gesture controls on their flagship Galaxy S and Note phones. Bixby will be the next step — like those gesture controls, Bixby commands are meant to replace touch controls.
While Bixby likely will be able to handle things like sending messages, it’s destined to be used for tap-heavy purposes. Instead of going through menus (and remembering where you stashed the settings app), it would be possible to tweak display settings with a quick voice command. Same goes for sharing photos — you’d only need to speak one command mentioning the content of the photo instead of finding a specific photo, tapping the share button, then tapping on the contacts you want to share the photo with. Even getting Bixby’s attention will be easier — the Galaxy S8 will have a physical button on the side dedicated to that purpose.
In time, Bixby could do what the other digital assistants can do, too, but it might take a while to get there. Samsung is following a few of their own design guidelines, and the one that sets them most apart is completeness. Individual apps won’t be Bixby-certified until Bixby can replace nearly all touch commands possible within an app — no matter how mundane. It’s a big reason why, when the Galaxy S8 launches, Bixby will only work with a few of Samsung’s preinstalled apps (the calendar not among them). Samsung has created an SDK for third party developers to make their apps work with Bixby, but that’s no guarantee those developers will take them up on the offer.
With the principle of completeness, Samsung wants users to see Bixby as something they can use in ways they expect. What the company wants to avoid are the situations where a user asks a digital assistant to do something, and it can’t. Bixby will be slow to come to most apps as a result, but Samsung is keen on making sure that Bixby isn’t the source of that disappointment. That could backfire — if Samsung doesn’t adequately communicate to its customers how limited Bixby is at first, it could be quickly forgotten.
Samsung is also designing Bixby to be context aware, taking things like time and location into account when responding to commands. Bixby should also be able to understand commands even if they aren’t phrased the right way — it’ll understand natural language. Natural language recognition is something many others have claimed, but few have really mastered, so it’ll be interesting to see how Samsung does here. The company isn’t starting from scratch, though — Bixby is based on technology from Viv, a company Samsung acquired last year.
It’ll be an uphill climb for Samsung, as evidenced by the poor performance of their previous voice assistant, S Voice. But, they could have some advantages. The deep-dive UI commands have gone overlooked by other digital assistants, which could give Samsung a nice little foothold.
The other advantage could be that no other company with a digital assistant makes as much hardware as Samsung does. In addition to their tablets and smartphones, Samsung now makes connected appliances, like refrigerators, vacuums, and washing machines. That makes it easier for Samsung to put Bixby forward as a smart home assistant in the future, especially if appliances can be controlled easily using voice commands to other appliances. Then again, Samsung will also need to convince customers that talking to their refrigerator through their washing machine is good and useful — likely the biggest challenge of all.