It’s a family conversation between a mother, her children and… a voice assistant on a connected speaker. These devices that we question by pronouncing a name (“Alexa!”, “OK Google!”) and that respond to the user, ultimately participate in the life of the home. But how far? Are they “interlocutors” like the others, blurring a little the perception we have of them? A team from the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (United States) observed 34 families (some have one or more of these devices at home), that is, a total of 92 people between the ages of 4 and 69, put several assistant models: the Jibo robot (with screen-equipped head and body), the three Amazon Echo devices (connected speaker), Echo Show (with rotating screen to follow the user), Echo Spot (ball-shaped with circular touch screen ) and Google Home.
The sessions were filmed and the researchers focused on a series of behavioral criteria. They observed, for example, if the users responded to the machine, reacted with exclamations, onomatopoeia, gestures of approval, shrugs, touches to the assistant, gestures to designate or greet him, etc. An approach then supplemented with questionnaires. All without being interested in the actual quality of the technology. The study was published in mid-January 2022 in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI.
A small robot considered more competent
Three studies were conducted on different aspects of the interaction. The first refers to Jibo, Google Home and Amazon Echo and refers to the realization of assistants. Results? The fact that Jibo is an articulated robot with the appearance of a little man gives him a personality that allows users to form a stronger, more emotional bond than with the other two machines and consider him more competent.
The second study focuses on the role of the brand in the interaction. Jibo and Google, which are company names, are used as the wake word for the respective devices, but Amazon is not. So the researchers reconfigured the Echo to respond to the word “Amazon,” but without changing any of its functions. The results of the first study are strengthened, with Jibo considered more embodied but also warmer than the other two. On the other hand, when comparing with the questionnaires from the first study, the researchers note that when the Echo is called “Alexa”, users find their answers better than when they speak with “Amazon”.
nothing but machines
The third part of this work focuses on the movements operated by the assistants and concentrates on the Jibo, the Echo Spot, modified to integrate a rotating accessory that signals that an interaction is taking place, and the Echo Show, whose activation word it has been changed to “Hey Computer” to distinguish it from the Echo Spot’s “Alexa”. In the end, it is still Jibo who stands out, since his movements depend on his human interlocutor. Therefore, they are less repetitive and less mechanical than the others.
For the researchers, if several elements were evaluated separately in the framework of 3 studies, all must be taken into account in combination to more accurately evaluate the perception of these devices. In particular on the part of the manufacturers, to work on the balance between ease of use, ergonomics and the necessary transparency, which imposes not making users believe that Jibo, Alexa and consorts are something more than what they are. machines.
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