What are Virtual Assistants?

As voice recognition and gesture-based technologies advance and more recently, converge, we are moving away from the notion of interaction with our devices via a pointer and keyboard. Virtual assistants are the natural end goal of natural user interfaces (NUI), and build on developments in interfaces across the spectrum of engineering, computer science, and biometrics. A new class of smart televisions will be among the first devices to make comprehensive use of the idea. While crude versions of virtual assistants have been around for some time, we have yet to achieve the level of interactivity seen in Apple's classic video, Knowledge Navigator. The Apple iPhone's Siri is a recent mobile-based example, and allows users to control all the functions of the phone, participate in lifelike conversations with users, and more. Microsoft Research is devoting considerable resources to developing NUIs. Virtual assistants for learning are clearly in the long-term horizon, but the potential of the technology to add substance to informal modes of learning is compelling.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • The unbelievably rapid mainstream adoption of tablet computing in learning suggests that virtual assistants, as defined here, could be equally compelling to learners who benefit from the use of connectivity to learning opportunities through tech tools. They might augment, through formal and informal learning opportunities, what our great learning facilitators provide.- paul.signorelli paul.signorelli Oct 18, 2013 - jochen.robes jochen.robes Oct 21, 2013
  • They may come to replace physical assistants that help students with unique learning challenges (i.e. Dyslexia) or physical challenges (hearing and sight), to provide a more accessible and personalised learning experiences.

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • Will the 'art of conversation' become a course? - michael.lambert michael.lambert Oct 17, 2013
  • An overt mention of how virtual assistants could support m-learning (mobile learning) might be helpful here.- paul.signorelli paul.signorelli Oct 18, 2013
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(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on higher education?

  • We do love our tech toys--particularly when they further blur the increasingly permeable lines between work and play in learning as well as in many other endeavors. Virtual assistants provide another potential and obvious way to support mobile learning and meet the need and desire for the availability of in-the-moment learning that we have been documenting elsewhere in this and previous Horizon Project reports.- paul.signorelli paul.signorelli Oct 18, 2013
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(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

  • Can't find any references to virtual assistants, as defined here, being used in education--most online references to "virtual assistants" seem to be referring to people who provide assistance online; would be wonderful to see an exploration as to whether learners of any age are using Siri as an educational tool (e.g., gathering information that supports their learning endeavors--wouldn't be surprised to see that this is happening, but have no evidence that it is.- paul.signorelli paul.signorelli Oct 18, 2013
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