O Danny Boy

There is so much pleasure to be gained
   from useless knowledge. —Bertrand Russell

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

SmarterChild, Smarter UI

I've been playing with SmarterChild for a couple of weeks now, and it's really an interesting hybrid interface of a type we'll see a lot more of in the future. For those of you not in the know, SmarterChild is a bot that you add to your IM buddy list that you can ask questions or do tasks by simply opening up a chat window with it. This is, well, smart on a number of levels.

For one thing, you don't have to install another program; it's part of something you already know and use. Thus, installation is pretty minimal, as is de-installation and learning how to use it. Getting started is as simple as typing "Hi" into a chat window. And most of the commands for it are pretty straightforward sentences or words. "Movies" brings up a list of movies playing in my area. And it knows my area because I've asked for "movies 15217" (my zip code) in the past, so it remembers that and just assumes I want that zip code.

The "menu" is pretty flat. It's like an automated phone system, but with the benefit that you can see your choices instead of only hear them. It also fixes some of the holes in IM: you can leave IM messages for offline buddies (or yourself!). You can have SmarterChild remind you of appointments too.

SmarterChild also has a veneer of a personality: not enough to be obnoxious (a la Clippy) but a bit more than a command line. You can "chat" with it if you so desire, or you can just get your raw information quickly. The personality doesn't stand in the way of your tasks.

The really brilliant thing about SmarterChild really is its use of IM as its context. Lately, I've found myself using SmarterChild more than Google or Yahoo for certain tasks (weather, definitions, translations, movies) and the reason is simple: the one item on my desktop that is nearly always on and visible is my IM buddy list and there, "sitting" in the buddy list, is SmarterChild. I don't have to launch or find my browser to use it; it's nearly "always on" because my buddy list is always on. It's much easier to double-click on SmarterChild and type "forecast" than it is to open a browser window/tab, bring up Yahoo, go to weather, type in my zip code, and then scroll past ads to find the forecast. SmarterChild is almost like a personalized RSS feed in its use and simplicity. The speed that you can type questions and get a response reminds me that there are times when a command-line mixed with natural language can be useful.

SmarterChild certainly isn't the first of these sorts of bots, but it is really the most useful of them I've encountered. And you can get a sense of what these sorts of smart agents could be like in the future, if say, a SmarterChild was woven into an operating system. I'm looking forward to it, and will hopefully get to design one.


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