Microsoft Agent is a technology that enables users to interact with an application or operating system by speaking or typing commands. Microsoft Agent can also deliver information and instructions through facial expressions, movements, gestures, and graphics. The idea behind this type of interface is to provide access for people who cannot use standard computer equipment such as a keyboard and mouse due to a physical impairment.
Microsoft Agent was first developed by Microsoft in 1994 when it was called ActiveX Control Pad. It's meant to be a platform-independent development tool for creating custom user interfaces that can respond to both verbal commands and hand movement (using devices like the P510 Smart Glass). The possibilities are endless; you could create an interactive weather report or let children play games with the system only by clicking, moving around elements, etc.
The technology has evolved quite a bit since then, but it's still pretty much the same idea: provide access to people who need it. Nowadays, however, there are several accessibility controls integrated into operating systems, and there are some pretty cool applications out on the market that allow physically challenged persons to enjoy a wider range of experiences than ever before. More on these in a bit...
What Is Microsoft Agent's Role In All Of This?
Microsoft Agent is still around, but it isn't as integrated into our everyday lives as I used to hope for during those '90s years. Its role today is mostly about providing access for users with disabilities by using voice control or predefined hand gestures. There are also some technologies developed recently that make use of Microsoft Agent features. For example, Kinect uses Visual Gestures (a technology born inside Microsoft itself), where you can interact with games by performing specific movements instead of pressing buttons. V-Speak is another simple application that uses Microsoft Agent to provide voice control for computers.
It's also worth mentioning that Microsoft has released a library of over 300 gestures you can use with the Kinect, which are created by following hand movement capture sessions organized in their Secret Weapons For Developers program. It's known as GAPI, and it provides access to Kinect features like skeleton tracking, state information, gestures, and raw sensor data. You can check out their Github site to download it free of charge even if you don't have an Xbox!
The Microsoft Speech API (SAPI), version 4 and above, drives the speech engine. The Microsoft SAPI includes a control panel that allows you to easily install and switch between multiple different Text to Speech and Speech to Text engines as well as voice training and scoring systems to improve the quality and accuracy of both engines.
Advantages of Microsoft Agent
The main advantage of Microsoft Agent is, without a doubt, the fact that it was designed to allow users with disabilities to interact more easily. You just need a microphone and at least Windows 2000, and you're good to go!
Disadvantages of Microsoft Agent
The biggest disadvantage of Microsoft Agent is that it's not available on every operating system. For example, if you're using Windows VISTA or later, Microsoft Agent won't work for you unless you have a service pack installed. Moreover, some people simply find it uncomfortable to use due to the old design and the fact that each time a hand gesture is detected, an audio clip will play. That can be annoying when playing games or watching videos.
Microsoft Agent alternatives
I think Microsoft Agent isn't meant to be used as an accessibility tool per se because its designers wanted it to be integrated into the operating systems themselves to provide access through voice or facial expressions instead of just keyboard shortcuts or joystick movements which is what we find in the accessibility tools we have today. For these reasons, Microsoft Agent has never been as successful as other projects that the company had developed such as PowerPoint or Word.
That said, some alternatives to Microsoft Agent can help us achieve similar results, and some even work better than its original version! Here are a few:
1) Mac OSX Accessibility
Apple's operating system offers some pretty interesting accessibility features for those who need them. With VoiceOver enabled, you'll be able to interact with your computer by pressing specific touch keys on your keyboard instead of clicking around looking for something that may not exist. You can also use Siri, whose voice recognition capabilities are quite accurate compared to others out there! You won't find anything like this running on Windows, that's for sure!
Developed by Google, this accessibility tool works pretty much like voiceover on the Mac. It contains some navigational keys that allow you to interact with your computer without using a mouse or other additional devices. It also includes high-quality voices and will work on Windows as well as Linux operating systems. Your only problem here is that it seems to only be available via Chrome browser extensions...so you'll need an existing account first to use it!
3) Universal Virtual Assistant (UVA)
This is an open-source virtual agent developed initially at Xerox PARC but then improved at Carnegie Mellon University CyLab funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The fact that it was developed at world-class institutions makes this software a pretty good choice. Plus, the latest version (2.1) runs on Mac OSX 10.7 or later!
Microsoft Agent is an alternative that many people consider obsolete given the fact that it was released back in 1996 while its competitors have advanced exponentially since then. That said, don't let it discourage you from trying other alternatives instead of Microsoft Agent because they are very similar but more up-to-date!