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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Samsung’s Voice Assistant Answered My Calls. It Was Weird

My sister calls me almost every day — often at inopportune times, like when I’m in a meeting or out at dinner with friends. That’s why I was intrigued to learn about Samsung’s Bixby Text Call, a feature that lets you blend traditional phone calls with texting. Instead of interrupting my meeting or dinner to answer the phone verbally, I can answer through texts using Bixby, i.e., Samsung’s version of Siri.

Samsung’s digital helper essentially acts as a mediator that converts my texts into speech. It works both ways by also transcribing the caller’s words into text. I’ll admit, it’s a confusing concept to grasp until you try it. But it shows that smartphone giants like Samsung and Google are thinking about ways to shake up the traditional phone call. 

Though phones themselves have evolved tremendously over the last decade, the experience of making a call has largely remained the same. Google sought to change that over the last five years by launching new phone-centric features for Pixel devices, such as those that allow the Google Assistant to screen spam calls and wait on hold for you.

Bixby Text Call feels like Samsung’s way of putting its own spin on the modern phone call, though there’s an important distinction between Google’s and Samsung’s methods. Unlike Google’s Call Screen feature, which uses the Google Assistant to screen calls on your behalf, Bixby isn’t actually answering the phone for you. You’re still the one answering the call, just through Bixby’s voice.

Whether that approach is useful, however, is still up for debate. I’ve been using Bixby Text Call sporadically over the past week to occasionally answer calls in scenarios where it would be inconvenient to pick up. I’ve found it helpful at times, but there have been instances when it may’ve created more confusion than it’s worth. 

How Bixby Text Call works

Samsung's Bixby logo pictured at the company's developer conferenceSamsung's Bixby logo pictured at the company's developer conference

James Martin/CNET

The English version of Bixby Text Call is available for Samsung devices running One UI 5.1, the company’s latest software update, which just launched in February. 

Getting started with the Bixby Text Call feature is simple enough. Just open the Phone app, tap the three dots in the right corner of the screen, and choose the Settings option. From there, you should see a menu item called Bixby text call. Tapping this choice will bring you to a page that explains what the tool does and allows you to switch it on or off.

Once the feature is activated, you’ll see a button that says Bixby text call on your incoming call screen. Tap that button and swipe up on the green phone icon when answering a call to use Bixby Text Call.

A screenshot of the Bixby text call button on an incoming callA screenshot of the Bixby text call button on an incoming call

After you turn on Bixby Text Call, you’ll see this oval-shaped button.

Screenshot by Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Here’s where things get interesting. Instead of seeing the traditional phone interface and hearing the caller’s voice, you see a text message thread on your screen. Meanwhile, the caller hears Bixby’s automated voice instead of yours. It says the following: “Hi. I’m using Bixby Text Call to convert your voice into text and respond to you. If you want to continue, say who you are and why you’re calling.”

From then on, Bixby transcribes whatever the caller says into text and also recites the recipient’s texts on the other end. The idea is that the caller speaks on the phone as if it’s a normal phone call, and the recipient types responses. You can also switch to a regular phone call anytime by tapping a green button labeled Voice call that sits above the text thread. 

When announcing Bixby Text Call, Samsung said the feature works on-device, meaning it doesn’t send data to the cloud for processing. The company also says audio is deleted after the recognition process is completed.   

Bixby is socially awkward but sometimes helpful

A screenshot showing what the chat interface for Bixby Text Call looks like for the recipient.A screenshot showing what the chat interface for Bixby Text Call looks like for the recipient.

Here’s what the chat interface for Bixby Text Call looks like for the recipient. 

Screenshot by Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Bixby Text Call is easy to set up, but there’s one problem. Using it can feel socially awkward. Since my friends and family expected to hear my voice answering the phone, Samsung’s automated speech caused some confusion. Because of this issue, it would be wise to decide when it’s appropriate to answer using Bixby Text Call, based on who’s calling, says business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach.

“I think those people who embrace technology would find it to be fascinating, innovative, unique, maybe cool,” she said. “But for someone like your grandmother, who doesn’t understand what’s going on, that could certainly be confusing.”

My sister, for example, initially hung up after stating her name following Bixby’s greeting. A close friend of mine said he almost ended the call right away because he initially mistook Bixby’s voice for a telemarketer’s.

Samsung is hoping to remedy this issue with a new tool that lets you create an artificial copy of your voice. (Yes, you read that correctly: Samsung wants to make an AI clone of your voice!) It’ll be launching in Korean before becoming available in English later this year, according to Samsung. 

That raises many questions, perhaps the biggest of which involves whether this tool could be used to impersonate others. Users will need to read specific sentences to create a voice copy, Samsung previously told CNET, which should prevent others from creating a voice clone by using any random clip of a person’s voice. We also have no idea what this voice copy will sound like. For example, we don’t know whether the intonations and cadence will sound natural.

Bixby Text Call requires that you trust Samsung’s virtual helper to accurately translate speech into text and vice versa. I was able to get through simple, quick conversations pretty easily using the feature. But there were times when Bixby made some obvious mistakes. As shown in the screenshot below, Bixby transcribed the speaker’s comment as, “Hey outstanding just calling a check in this event,” which, of course, doesn’t make sense. (I’m still not quite sure what my husband was trying to say there.) 

A screenshot showing a conversation in Bixby Text CallA screenshot showing a conversation in Bixby Text Call

Bixby’s speech translation isn’t always correct.

Screenshot by Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

It can also be difficult to manage the natural flow of a conversation over Bixby Text Call. Since one party can hear and the other can’t, it’s challenging to know when to speak or type. For example, the listener can’t always tell when Bixby is about to finish speaking, especially during its long-winded (but much needed) introduction. And when the recipient is typing, the caller hears nothing. 

Even without a feature like Bixby Text Call, it’s easy enough to respond to the wrong message or misconstrue someone’s words over text. That’s why it’s even more important to pay close attention when using an intermediary like Bixby, says Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas. 

“With this type of technology, we are going to have to be even more cognizant and aware that what I’m responding back to, and [what] you’re responding back to me, may be out of order,” she said.  

In most scenarios, it would probably just be easier to decline the call and send a separate text message if you can’t answer. But despite these shortcomings, I can imagine some scenarios when Bixby Text Call might make sense. 

The Galaxy S23 (left) and S23 Plus (right) against a brick wallThe Galaxy S23 (left) and S23 Plus (right) against a brick wall

Samsung phones running One UI 5.1, such as the Galaxy S23 (left) and S23 Plus (right), can make use of the Bixby Text Call feature.

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

For example, the feature came in handy recently when I was out with some friends at a crowded bar and my husband needed to ask me a quick question while at the store. It was too loud for me to answer the call at the bar, but it also would’ve been inconvenient for him to text since he was roaming around grocery store aisles. Since it wasn’t our first time using Bixby Text Call, my husband knew what to expect. Hearing Bixby answer the phone didn’t seem as jarring, so it ended up being the right solution for that specific situation.

I could also see it being helpful in scenarios where the caller simply can’t text, such as while driving, cooking or caring for a child. Though it’s true you can just dictate a text message in those situations, Bixby Text Call might be a better option if the caller wants a timely answer or needs to quickly send follow-up messages. 

I don’t think Samsung is reinventing the phone call with Bixby Text Call, nor do I think this feature is compelling enough to convince non-Samsung users to switch to a Galaxy phone. Google’s phone calling features, such as wait time predictions, generally feel like more practical solutions to real problems.

That said, it’s interesting to see companies other than Google thinking about ways to modernize the phone call. This just feels like a first step for Samsung, rather than the final answer. 

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