What are Virtual Assistants?

As voice recognition and gesture-based technologies advance and more recently, converge, we are moving away from the notion of interaction with our devices via a pointer and keyboard. Virtual assistants are the natural end goal of natural user interfaces (NUI), and build on developments in interfaces across the spectrum of engineering, computer science, and biometrics. A new class of smart televisions will be among the first devices to make comprehensive use of the idea. While crude versions of virtual assistants have been around for some time, we have yet to achieve the level of interactivity seen in Apple's classic video, Knowledge Navigator. The Apple iPhone's Siri is a recent mobile-based example, and allows users to control all the functions of the phone, participate in lifelike conversations with users, and more. Microsoft Research is devoting considerable resources to developing NUIs. Virtual assistants for learning are clearly in the long-term horizon, but the potential of the technology to add substance to informal modes of learning is compelling.