Asterisk: Always On

By Digium Webteam

In the last 15 years, there has been a significant shift in the focus of development from the concept of “compute” to “interact”.  While there is certainly a spectacular improvement in the ability of machines to store, calculate, and interpret data, I would suggest that the ability of individuals to interact with and easily access, understand, and modify that data is that which has been the most powerful factor in the spread of information systems into all facets of life.

There are four basic methods that people use to interact with computing systems: eyes (seeing screens), hands (keyboards, mice, or other I/O systems), ears, and mouth (spoken commands.)  There is currently a wealth of methods for interaction with eyes and hands – humans are primarily visual animals, so this comes as no surprise.  And humans are marvelous communicators verbally – we convey most of our sophisticated information in spoken language (even these words you see on the screen, a visual interface, are artifacts of our ability to talk.)  The first widespread technology that many people were exposed to, and certainly the largest network that has been built, is the telephone system.  But there still remains a gap between the screen-based world and the sound-based world.  Using spoken language is our first choice for communications, but unless the other person is standing within earshot it still takes a back seat to visual communications methods when computers are involved.  I think this is about to change for the better.  Voice interaction will not replace visual, but Asterisk is enabling it to close the gap a bit by providing a useful voice toolkit to cutting-edge developers as well as back-office pragmatists.  It’s easy and fast to get Asterisk bolted on to your existing application.  The only thing that is trailing a bit are control methods for devices (mobile phones) to allow quick access to microphone/speakers, and similar control planes for desktop machines that would allow transparent direction of audio in a secure way.  All of the basic components exist, so now we’re down to politics of device control.  Having “always on” communications via Asterisk that is available without even touching a keypad or looking at a screen – that’s what I envision happening, given what I can see from some of the devices and directions that are evident.

Earlier this year as part of a conference, I had the chance to use some of the “secret-service” type radio connections, with a discreet headset and a lapel microphone.  This was an eye-opening experience – it was amazingly productive!  I’m very familiar with PTT phones and I’ve never been very impressed, but a ubiquitous device that is basically “implanted” in the ear and had selectable broadcast/unicast capabilities was surprisingly useful in a small working group.  No fumbling for the device, fiddling with the screen or keypad, no “broadcast” messages that everyone in the room could hear.  The combination of this type of system bolted into Asterisk with voice-recognition systems and scripts – THAT would be great.  And easy.  And inexpensive.  There is a whole industry growing around those kinds of tools, and Asterisk is the ideal platform to bridge between existing screen-based tools and their audio counterparts.  (Yes, I know about some of the tools that exist already, but they’re typically in the $XXXk range for systems like Vocera – when they’re $0k for Asterisk, then innovation will really heat up.)

Already Asterisk is being grafted onto real-time communications tools.  Google search found Asterisk Radio Networks and Wisconsin Emergency Communications (WeComm) on my first keyword entry.  This is GREAT stuff, and I’m sure there are many more small projects out there linking new hardware and new software together with Asterisk as the glue.  Radios are great, but they’re a niche – the real target is the mobile device.

There are iPhone and Android development efforts to graft Asterisk connection methods into mobile devices.  Android has great promise for replacing the peer-to-peer radio model with a network model.  There are rumors (you know who you are) about highly-integrated free Flash plugins for Asterisk being developed by third-party OSS developers.  Getting into the code under the hood on Android and letting it work more seamlessly with VoIP systems built on Asterisk – that will be fun to watch.  And it’s happening already.  Hang on, if you think the volume is loud now about Asterisk being built into everything, the next year is going to be deafening!


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