Soundbytes: the future of communication

For people, talking is easy. We’ve been doing it for millennia. But for machines? Not quite, says Hector Ouilhet, Head of Design at Google Search.

If you think of human speech as having been around for 24 hours, Ouilhet says, written word has been around for just eight minutes. Computers have been here for one millisecond.

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When people communicate, meaning “gets negotiated,” he says. “There is this back and forth. When we talk both parties are able to adjust their frame of reference.”

“In a few minutes you gain a lot of information, creating a mental model of the person you’re talking to. This frame of reference allows us to talk to each other.” 

" I want something that can tell me more about what is all around me than a phone ever could." Nicholas Kamuda, Microsoft

Nicholas Kamuda leads the design team for Microsoft’s Hololens and the Windows Mixed Reality computing group. His goal is to ensure the way we communicate with our phones can happen “in the space around you, in real time, at life size”.

“I want to be able to experience something with other people at the same time, like exploring a new place,” he says. “And I want something that can tell me more about what is all around me than a phone ever could.”


Kamuda and Ouilhet were recently in New Zealand for Semi Permanent, a two-day gathering of some of the globe’s leading designers, artists, entrepreneurs and futurists.

While they work on different technologies and for different companies, they share a common goal: improving the way we communicate, collaborate and create.

Communication is essential to every good relationship, both personal and professional. For Google’s Ouilhet it is also about collaboration.

He sees a world in which Google’s voice assistant services do more than just answer questions - they will talk to us just as easily as we talk to our friends.

Right now the problem with voice assistant technology is at some point the technology doesn’t know how to respond or what to do, he says. If it does not understand the question it literally does not compute.

Attempting to explain Mixed Reality to the audience at the ANZ Pavilion in Auckland recently, Kamuda said watching a video or looking at somebody wearing a headset “simply does not do it justice”.


ANZ New Zealand’s Head of Digital and Transformation Liz Maguire says the presentations were “a fantastic way to hear where new ways of interaction are going”.

“At ANZ we think Voice is going to be a key way for customers to interact with us digitally going forward and we have work underway to make this happen,” she says.

“Ouilhet really reinforced the simplicity and learning opportunity that conversation can give us and I think this can be a very powerful tool for those customers who might struggle to interact with our digital tools now.

“Voice interaction is going to be important for giving those customers the reassurance and comfort they are getting the payments and services they asked for.”

ANZ is also watching the development of mixed-reality technology and is keen to explore ways of using it.

With Mixed Reality, people wear headsets which allow them to interact with digital content and holograms while walking around in a real, physical, space.

The technology is not just for gaming, or visiting a virtual museum with your friends. It is being trialled by a range of organisations and businesses, from medical schools to emergency services to construction companies and architects.

Kamuda says architects can collaborate in real time on the design of a building. They do not even have to be in the same physical space to collaborate.

The Hololens brings them all together in one virtual space. Potential buyers for a still-to-be-built apartment can take a virtual walk-through to see what it will look like and feel like.

At Microsoft, Kamuda’s team have even created relaxation spaces where users can don a headset and escape for a few minutes from their office to the beach, or a park, complete with music or the sounds of the ocean.

Healthcare is another industry where there is huge potential.

“X-rays or MRIs, they are often presented with flat media,” Kamuda says. “What happens when you start to see them come together in three dimensions is really transformative for doctors.”

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

Photo left to right: Liz Maguire, Head of Digital and Transformation ANZ NZ, Nicholas Kamuda, Microsoft & Hector Ouilhet, Head of Design at Google Search


Voice search engines and mixed reality both raise questions about the security of the information we are sharing. The issue was raised with the developers at ANZ and is something both take seriously.

Ouilhet told the audience they were “people first, and designers second”’

“It’s about transparency,” he says. “You should have a say in what we know.  A big part of my team works on that. It’s something we take a lot of consideration for.”

“As long as it is easy for you to know what Google knows and then you can take or leave it. It is complex but it is certainly top of mind.”

Servers in holographic technology liked mixed reality will be able to track what people look at, Kamuda says.

The trade-off is they will be able to bring users new value. He wonders if at some point there will have to be formal rules around what information can and cannot be collected.

But both Kamuda and Ouilhet agree for them, and their colleagues, developing the technology is all about making people’s lives better - and easier.

Tony Field is a bluenotes contributor

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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