I Want Sandy

Does anyone remember I Want Sandy? It was one of the first virtual assistants out there, launched in 2007, I believe, but it shut down just a short while later after its creator moved on to another job.

I really loved I Want Sandy, and no other virtual assistants that have popped up since have captivated me the same way. Watching the Spike Jonze movie Her, I was reminded of why I was so taken by I Want Sandy: it was the method of interaction.

You used the service by sending Sandy emails in human readable language: “Sandy, remind me to pick up the dry cleaning at 6:50pm tonight.” Sandy would respond with a confirmation, and if I remember correctly you could have Sandy set up to either email you a reminder, text you, or both.

It was essentially a command line interface, and yet the fact that you had to write an email to use it was subtly and critically different. Though I knew it was just software on the other end, interacting with it in a manner typically reserved for interacting with other humans created a powerful illusion of intimacy and humanity. Email isn't even the most efficient way of interacting with software, you have to wait for a reply email confirmation, and sometimes if Sandy didn't understand my command she'd reply asking me to clarify and I'd have to change my command and resend it. With an AI built right into one's calendar, you could fix such an issue immediately, and yet my brain converted the muscle memory of writing emails into a sensation of conversing with another person.

The most efficient way to do something is not always the most human. My first short in film school had to be shot and edited on film. It was a giant pain in the ass to use the giant and ancient K-E-M flatbed editing machines to edit our film. I spent several all-nighters one of the UCLA's editing rooms splicing and taping together strips of my 16mm black and white film, running the new cuts forward and backwards.

Our next short we edited on Final Cut Pro on the computer, and it was a magnitude of order faster and easier. However, editing a digitized abstraction of the actual film itself put a mental barrier between me and my movie that removed some of the intimacy from the process. I felt more detached from my movie than I had when I had been manipulating it with my own fingertips. It was so fun, using a scroll wheel to ramp up the speed at which my film played forward or backward, even if the machines often broke down.

The shift from mouse and keyboard interfaces to touchscreen interfaces is another example of a method of interaction that feels more human, and if voice interaction ever gets to the point where we're speaking to our computers like Joaquin Phoenix speaks to his operating system in Her, that will be an even larger leap towards more human (humane?) interfaces and interactions.

Apple and Google are taking steps in that direction with Siri and Google Now, but I'd love a few more human touches. I think they'd make users much more tolerant of the current defects of those systems. Creating an illusion of personality is difficult, of course, but tiny flourishes go a long way. One time I recall sending IWantSandy an email at 3 in the morning asking “her” to remind me of something the next morning. Her reply began with “Wow! You're up late! Get some sleep soon” or something like that. Simple to code, powerfully effective.

When I get reminders on iOS or Android of meetings, they always come in cold and flat. Instead of just “1 on 1 with Joe at 1:00pm” popping up with a chirp on my phone, what if it were phrased “Eugene, don't forget you have a 1 on 1 with Joe in 10 minutes!” What if it came in via a text message, as if a person were texting me? What if there were a smiley emoji at the end of the text?

I know some folks would hate that type of false anthropomorphism, but perhaps you could choose whether to turn it on or off.

I still miss Sandy. For a short period it seemed as if some folks might resurrect her, but nothing came of it. I keep thinking one of these days I'll find a note from her in my inbox.