Humans can usually hear what they want to hear. It is known as the cocktail party effect – we can hear the conversation we want, near or far, and tune-out the rest. It’s not so easy with microphones which are generally designed to be up-close and personal.
Most mics are designed to be near the source. We call this near field communications.
The telephone handset is designed for near field communications and is traditionally held to/near the mouth. The better speakerphones have microphone arrays and beam forming technology to pick up sounds further away, or far-field communications. Amazon put a seven mic array in its Echo device making Alexa, its personal assistant, able to pick up commands from across a room.
The 1986 film Star Trek IV takes place in the late 20th century on earth. There’s a scene where Scotty attempts to talk to “computer,” but as we all knew the speech UI was still science fiction back then. Bones tries to help out and hands Scotty the mouse. Scotty speaks into the mouse, as he mistakenly assumes the mouse to be a corded microphone. This was hilarious because Scotty thought the speech UI was invented, but that it still only supported near-field communications. How ridiculous!
For Amazon to enable its customers to shop from across the room with far field communications it has to convince people to buy one of their devices. Cisco intends to enable its new assistant, Monica, as a room feature within its installed base of video conferencing rooms. Monica was previewed at Cisco Live, and provides an excellent example of how cloud services can provide new features to existing premises-based equipment.