Wednesday, October 26, 2011

5 library related tasks I hope Siri can do

While many people were slightly disappointed with iPhone 4S, the one feature that was considered cool and perhaps the main selling point is Siri , the intelligent assistant that among other tasks reads your email, manages your schedule, calls/texts your contacts etc.

Still, will people find it strange to speak commands out-loud in public? Is Siri smart enough most of the time or will it be frustratingly wrong most of the time?

It does make sense to use voice input controls for smartphones because typing is hard on the move particularly given the smaller keyboard, though honestly at this stage no-one knows if Siri or rather the broader paradigm of voice input controls (google had similar for a while already) will take off, though with Apple putting their weight behind it, there is a fighting chance of this happening.

If voice input controls do take off here are some possible library related functions that I would like to see. I don't have a iPhone 4S (yet) but some of the things below are already possible mostly I think, while others are more of a wish.

1. Ask Siri to text or email the library

In the ad above, the user says "Text my wife I am going to be late". As many libraries provide text a librarian service, users can now say "Text the library (or librarian?), " and then wait for a reply that will be read by Siri as well.  For libraries that don't offer SMS service, Siri can be used to email the library.  

I am not sure how many people have the library's sms or email address in their contacts though so that might be a stumbling block. I heard about one trick (sorry can't remember exactly where or from whom but might be at ALA Annual 2011) that might help. Basically the librarian conducts tours for freshman and while they are waiting for others to come and for the tour to start, she gets the waiting students to access the library Facebook on their smartphones and to like them. I suppose the same thing can be done for sms, emails. If the librarian has iPhone 4S or similar, she can even demo this trick :)

Practically speaking, countless surveys have shown that librarians are far down on the list in terms of people to contact when they have a question, so Siri probably won't change much if users don't want to contact you anyway. For those who do, this might lower the barrier of access somewhat?

2. Ask Siri to check if the library is open  

In the ad above the woman asks "Is it chilly in San Francisco this weekend?" And the answer comes back "Not too cold" with info on screen.

Would be nice if you could ask "Is library X open tomorrow at 9 pm?" and it answers?

Siri offers to do a web search so maybe currently it works already to some extent by doing a search and pulling up the right webpage on opening hours.

Still assuming Apple eventually opens the API so you can interface with apps, you might be able to interface with apps like Library:Australia , Ottawa (Canada) Libraries , UPLA (Hongkong), which have detailed information about all libraries in the region so Siri could ask questions like"Which library branch closest to me is open tomorrow at 8 am?" and answer directly.

3. Ask Siri to check if a book is available  

In the above video, based on the original Siri before it was sold to Apple, the guy asks "Where can I find Lunch?", later a lady asks "where can I find green tea latte?" and it suggests a few places based on location.

What happens if one asks "Where can I find the book - Steves Jobs?" would Siri just search and list Amazon results etc? How about "Where can I borrow the book ....?".  Again, wouldn't it be nice if Siri could interface with your library app, do a search then display the item.

With so many libraries having apps out for catalogues, whether it is their own, one that they get from their ILS (e.g BookMyne from SirsiDynixTRACpac etc) or maybe even the Worldcat app or the even broader Local books  from Librarything, I wonder if Siri could use information from there to answer and tell you which libraries near you has it and maybe even offer to place a hold.

4. Ask Siri if my books are overdue

Similar to #1, but Siri would somehow know you are asking library related questions based on your account such as "Is my book overdue?" or "How many books can I borrow from the library" and pull out the results from there. Again conceivably a general web search by Siri could find the answer, but if your app could be directly plugged in (some Q&A knowledge base system), it would give far more direct results, particularly if it could login with your loan record details to determine when a book is overdue (and offer to renew), or you could check if discussion rooms or pcs are full and book a slot etc.

Or even the ultimate holy grail, to tell you where the book you want is in the library or (the restroom is) and direct you there. "Take the staircase down...."

5. Ask Siri to search for papers and books for you on a certain topic

Siri already pulls information from Wolfram Alpha . Wolfram Alpha is not a search engine but is billed as a answer-engine that tries to answer questions directly as opposed to giving you a webpage that may have the ask. It can calculate answers from structured data such as computing the age of a famous personality now, or "What is the largest country in the world?" or even answers to maths equations.

Coupled with Siri it means in theory, Siri can also answer quick reference questions, but libraries have long stopped answering quick reference questions (at least the easy ones) due to google.

The 2 videos above show what Siri can do with Wolfram Alpha. The 1st is based on the older Siri where it manages to figure out some crazy family relationship tree using Wolfram Alpha.

The 2nd shows how to use Siri to figure out when the next elicipse is (based on your location). The 2nd video shows you that to use Wolfram alpha directly, you have to first say "Wolfram Alpha" (not Siri) , I suppose when other apps get intergreted, you have the same thing and you got say "Library app" first.

There is also one video by Steve Wozniak that raves about what Siri can do together with Wolfram Alpha (though I think he was saying the current Siri for whatever reason is less capable sometimes?)

But not every question can be answered directly, in particular doing searches for research. I wonder though if Siri can work with our library catalogues and databases to help make searching easier.

Maybe "Siri, Search Pubmed for articles on Cancer, written after 2009 , by ....." and it would pull up all the articles. Then it would read abstracts and you could download it for later viewing.

Or perhaps a scenario where you say "Search for me ebooks on disruptive innovation" and it would pull out ebooks on loan by your library, which you download and then let it read to you?? Talk about real "natural language" queries!

Not sure how difficult it would be to get something like this working, though the query is basically an advanced search (using facets?). Also unsure how many people do research on their phones, though this could be a case again where innovations on the smartphone later migrate to the desktops (as in the case where features in Apple's iOS is influencing their desktop OS). Google already offers voice input search, though I wonder how many people are actually using it.

A advanced searcher would probably laugh at this, and swiftly conduct more sophisticated searches particularly on a desktop, but one wonders if this might be helpful for more novice users who don't do advanced searches.


Some other uses that occur to me , including asking Siri to set location based reminders so you are reminded to return overdue books when you are in the campus, set up schedules for meeting with librarians etc.


I don't have iPhone 4S (perhaps those who have it can try out some library related questions and report how it does) so I could be totally offbase on what I wrote but it doesn't matter as this goes beyond Apple or Google related products, as I was just speculating on how library related tasks change with voice input.

Similarly I would guess that there is plenty of literature on using voice input for searching so all I wrote probably comes off as naive and I have no clue how hard or easy it is to interface with Siri or Android phones to accomplish some of my more ambitious wishes.

In any case, Jakob Nielsen has a old but still valid article on when Voice input would be most valuable , and he proposes that perhaps using it as an "additional component to a multi-modal dialogue might be most useful". 

I guess a Star Trek level type of interface with AI built-in would be fantastic but might be some ways off, though Siri is a very good first step that allows one to dream on what might be possible.

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