It's only been three months since Apple unveiled Siri, the voice-controlled personal assistant built into the iPhone 4S. Although the product is technically in beta, it has already spawned imitations and Web video parodies. What is perhaps most exciting about Siri is not what it does now, but in its potential future uses.
The latest clues about that future come from a newly-published patent, which hints at some of the things Siri may be able to do after its first iteration.
The patent focuses primarily on the "hands-free context" in which users could employ voice control. Whether in a moving vehicle, at home or in a professional setting, there are a number of scenarios in which users could benefit from controlling their devices using only their voices. This is especially true while one is driving, when voice could be used to send and receive messages or to query for navigational directions. Scenarios like that, or at least early versions of them, are already familiar to iPhone 4S owners, but are bound to get more functional and complex moving forward.
One thing Apple apparently plans to have its devices do is automatically detect those hands-free scenarios and adjust the UI accordingly. That is, when you mount your phone in the car, the device realizes it's time to substitute certain core elements of its GUI with voice and audio-based controls.
The wording of the patent itself is not exclusive to smartphones. Indeed, it lists personal computers, tablets, televisions and gaming systems as devices with which this technology could potentially be used. There should be little doubt that the company plans on expanding Siri beyond the iPhone and building it into other hardware, quite possibly including the forthcoming new iPad and Apple's much-anticipated HDTV set.
The Role of Siri-Hacking
Some of the more exciting clues about Siri's future potential come not from patents but from the community of developers who have already started tinkering with what Apple released and putting it to new uses. Early examples built using the SiriProxy hack include remotely adjusting the thermostat and starting one's car, as well as calling up television shows on a Web-connected set top box.
While Apple officially frowns upon such tinkering, it has a tendency to borrow heavily from the iOS jailbreaking community when developing its own products. It's even hired a few notable iOS developers with roots in the jailbreaking community. Each new version of iOS pulls in a feature or two previously only available on jailbroken devices. The recently overhauled Notification Center is just one substantial example.
When users started hacking the Kinect, Microsoft famously endorsed the practice, going so far as to offer cash for the best hacks. If Apple embraces Siri-hacking, it will likely be in more subtle ways, probably by quietly rolling a few of the best hacks into its own official offering. The line will always be drawn at features that go too strongly against carrier wishes, present user experience challenges or otherwise don't meet Apple's strict requirements.