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Report: Digital assistants held back by poor microphone technology

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Frustrated that Cortana, Google Now, or Siri just don’t seem to understand you? It might not be their fault, but the microphones within the phones themselves, a new report claims. The comments come from IHS Markit analyst Marwan Boustany, who told Bloomberg Thursday that microphone technology hasn’t advanced much since the launch of Siri.

The problems lie in the lack of progress in not being able to filter out background noise or focusing on far-away voices. We’ve become conditioned to work around these issues, though: How often do you see someone holding the phone up to their mouth when trying to ask Siri or Google Now a question, or catch yourself doing the same thing? Quite often, probably.

There’s not much Apple, Microsoft, or Google can do on their own to fix this. According to Bloomberg, these companies are now pressuring microphone manufacturers to improve their software and hardware to improve voice recognition.

Among the demands are for a higher signal-to-noise ratio, where the mic can isolate voices better and without the need to hold the device close, and a higher acoustic overload point, which is the point where a microphone can no longer distinguish a signal from background noise. This must be done in the same real estate as current mics, given manufacturers are already struggling to fit all the components into ever-shrinking devices.

While waiting for mic manufacturers to act, device manufacturers have turned to adding more mics in an attempt to overcome the shortcomings of current technologies. It’s not always effective in fixing the issue, and in turn can become a greater drain on battery. This is especially true considering most AI’s now are always listening for commands from the user, i.e. “Hey Siri.”

While some microphone manufacturers have turned to software in an attempt to fix the problem, a few are experimenting with entirely new designs such as newer manufacturer Vesper. That company is using piezoelectric technology, which it removes the static plate found in current designs — which often loses sensitivity over time — and should result in a better mic that also is a good deal more sensitive.

In any case, these new mic technologies will not be ready until at least mid-2017. That means for most popular phones, better microphones are not on the horizon for at least one, if not two, generations. Until then, you’ll still be greeted with that annoying phrase, “Sorry, I didn’t quite get that.”

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