Ever since Samsung acquired Viv Labs, a startup founded by the creators of Siri, back in October last year, we’ve known Samsung was up to something. Something big, one might add. This was followed by later reports of Samsung apparently considering a creation of a $1 billion fund to invest in the future of Samsung artificial intelligence. However, the news of Viv Labs acquisition was widely regarded as Samsung’s move to install Viv, an extremely promising AI assistant with an aim to handle everyday tasks, onto a plethora of its devices. This would include everything from the next line of Galaxy smartphones, wearables to a bunch of devices with the prefix “smart”. It was supposed to help the South Korean tech titan overcome the disaster that was Galaxy Note 7.
Roughly half a year later and Viv is nowhere to be found, seen or heard. Well, at least not in the form we expected. Instead, we have Samsung Bixby, the company’s candidate for the artificial intelligence assistance race. Announced in February this year, the voice agent is currently found on the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus smartphones. It’s an unfinished product that is currently missing a key feature – voice recognition. In its current state, Bixby leaves much to be desired. Still, it also offers a pretty good sense of the direction Samsung is taking. As for Viv, there is a certain part of it in Bixby, although there are no details on the specifics. Since there is a lot of uncertainty regarding Bixby’s present, maybe we should double back and see how it all began. As some of you perhaps remember, the story behind Samsung Bixby starts with Vlingo.
Users who remember the early Android days, as well as the post-glory days of the Symbian operating system, might find the name familiar. Vlingo was a speech recognition software company that dished out a successful intelligent personal assistant. At the time, Vlingo represented an innovation in speech recognition. Based on natural language processing and using adaptive language models, its voice-to-text technology served a basis for what we have today. Users were able to connect with friends and family by texting, calling or even updating Facebook statuses; find things to do and services to call or do the little things like set alarms, get directions and so on. In essence, Vlingo was the Bixby of yesterday, allowing users to search, text, and navigate smartphones without typing.
Ever since the company’s founding in 2006, Vlingo was the acquisition target of Nuance Communications, a large software company that provides speech and imaging applications. The process was ugly and full with patent lawsuits and counter patent lawsuits. In the end, Vlingo prevailed in the legal battle, prompting Nuance Communications to up its offer. Vlingo relented and by the end of December 2011, Nuance Communications acquired it for an undisclosed sum. The remnants of Vlingo can be seen on the assistant’s website which is deserted and, due to its gray composition, feels like looking at an obituary page. However, there is no need for despair as Vlingo did its job superbly. At its peak, it had 5 million users, as well as numerous partnerships with different companies. Those partnerships helped pave the way for today’s AI assistants, especially for another instance of Samsung’s personal assistant – S Voice.
By the time S Voice plans came to fruition, Vlingo was already an integral part of Samsung Galaxy S2 devices. The company’s partnership with Samsung grew in volume and soon developed plans to create a brand new personal assistant. Naturally, the basis for S Voice development was Vlingo. With Samsung Galaxy S3, almost five years ago, S Voice entered the spotlight as a built-in application. Soon, it spread on Galaxy S and Note models, Tab tablets and a bunch of other Samsung smartphones. S Voice employed natural language UI to receive and perform commands by sending requests to a cloud service. Starting with Galaxy S5 and subsequent Samsung Android devices, S Voice used Nuance instead of Vlingo as its basis. It continued along the well-tread path of its predecessor. It made appointments, activated apps and devices, answered questions and a myriad of other things.
Still, S Voice failed to establish itself on the market even though Samsung did everything to better it. With every new version of Galaxy S model, the tech titan added new capabilities but to no avail. S Voice had trouble recognizing voice commands, often delivering incoherent responses. Third-app integration was iffy at times. Furthermore, it seemed that after the initial below-average performance (at best), the stigma remained throughout the years, despite evident improvements. It certainly didn’t help that S Voice had to battle Apple’s Siri, which emerged as a clear market leader. Galaxy S6 was the last generation of Samsung’s smartphones that supported S Voice. Samsung quietly discontinued it from Android (it will live on Tizen devices) to make room for a reboot in the image of Bixby.
Samsung Bixby in the present
We’ve already touched upon the subject of Bixby and its current state. Perhaps one thing we didn’t mention, that might be important in the long run, is that Bixby will be in constant development. That really comes as no surprise because right now, Bixby is a few features short. Nonetheless, it’s still a nice thing to hear. At least, it’s reassuring to know that Samsung has a philosophy it aims to follow and deliver over time, unlike some other assistants (khm khm Siri, khm) available. In that respect, Samsung is in a unique position. The company is able to integrate its artificial intelligence to mobile devices and various gadgets, thus creating its own comprehensive IoT ecosystem without third parties. Of course, Samsung is not foolish to avoid third-party support but it will surely look to establish its own products first. To those efforts, Bixby is a crucial component.
Almost by default, digital assistants have promised far more than they have actually delivered. Bixby is no exception, although Samsung tried to be upfront about it as much as possible. It’s a risky move and we will just have to wait and see how it plays out and what Bixby can really do once it becomes a complete package. In meantime, looking back at its history, it has a lot of material to draw upon. The glory days of Vlingo didn’t translate well into S Voice for reasons we can’t quite put our finger on. Was Siri so good? Was S Voice any good? Did its first impression hurt it in the long run? Who knows. If Bixby turns out to be a success (and it has all it takes for it), it really won’t matter.
Don’t forget that artificial intelligence is hard work, sometimes much too hard. The secret to personal digital assistants is their ability to ease the usage of devices, as well as to make it faster. Throw in a couple of innovative or fresh ideas and you have a winner. From what we’ve seen so far of Bixby, it demonstrated it has the potential to be that winner. Now, it just needs to prove it for good. It will certainly take time but we don’t mind, we’ll wait.