Voice Based Personal Assistants Will Become Ubiquitous

Voice based digital assistants will make themselves heard in 2018

It’s difficult for machines to interact with people via the voice. Human beings have wildly varying accents, don’t always speak clearly, and most of the time don’t say what they mean. For a machine to understand the complex nuances of natural speech and successfully reply requires sophisticated technology. That said, voice based personal assistants have become hugely popular over the past few years. In spite of privacy concerns and operational issues, we have opened our homes to devices such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. As more and more products gain voice connectivity, our dependence on speech controlled machines is only set to grow in 2018.

Beyond the CES 2018 buzz

The 2018 annual CES (Consumer Technology Association) Show in January was dominated by voice controlled technology. Tech companies are looking to expand the reach of voice assistants, gradually merging them into all areas of our everyday lives. Away from the home we can soon expect to see them in cars, meeting rooms, and even personal earbuds. The impact of voice controlled assistants will also grow within the home, with Amazon in particular focusing on integrating the technology into home appliances. You might soon be able to talk to your shower, receive on demand recipe advice from your fridge, or flush your toilet with a verbal command. Whilst it might not be quite clear why anyone would want voice technology in their toilet – especially given its inherent use of microphones – these examples do demonstrate the optimism currently surrounding this technology. The key for voice based tech companies will be the seamless integration of personal assistants with key appliances in the daily routine.

Speaking to consumer habits

The rush to export voice assistants into a growing variety of products is a direct reaction to consumer demand for this technology. Consultancy firm Capgemini recently released a paper on what they are calling conversational commerce – the consumer purchase of items via voice based personal assistants. The report found that 51 per cent of consumers surveyed in the US, France, Germany and the UK are already users of voice assistants. Within three years, they predict that 40 per cent of consumers will use a voice assistant to make purchases rather than a website or app. Significantly, 31 per cent will also use an assistant instead of visiting a physical retail space. The fact that consumers are enticed by the idea of shopping by voice demonstrates that the convenience, speed, and ability to multi task offered by voice assistants is of great commercial value.

Did I hear that correctly?

As with any new form of technology, where there are advantages, there are also drawbacks. With voice based personal assistants, one of the main problems still affecting adoption is fundamental technological issues relating to the use of the voice. Speech recognition technology is far from perfect, as any user of Google Assistant, Alex or Siri will testify. Unless commands or phrases are uttered clearly, digital assistants struggle to understand. Sensitive microphones might have made these devices better at picking out sounds, but they do still struggle in noisy environments. Anyone who has ever asked a device to play loud music will be all too aware of this problem. When the sentence “Hey, Google, turn up the volume”, leads to the desired result, more often than not the speaker will then be incapable of hearing any requests to turn it down…

It’s not just poor enunciation or ambient noise which foils digital assistants. Consumers value voice based communication precisely because it is a natural interface: speaking to devices is less intrusive than tapping away on a phone or computer. In an age of growing awareness around digital etiquette, voice commands will therefore gain greater currency. However, when people interact with voice assistants, truly natural modes of communication cause problems for the technology. Full sentences and a conversational style don’t always register well with digital assistants, which can struggle to pick out important information from filler words. If companies want more of us to start speaking to more of our devices, they are going to have to make sure we can be understood.

This problem will only be exacerbated when more and more of our devices are voice controlled. When Alexa has to compete for attention with televisions, lamps and laptops in our sitting rooms she is going to get confused. As smart speakers spread throughout our homes and beyond they are going to have to find a way to work together, or else everything will end in confusion.

Privacy remains a concern

The longstanding bugbear of voice based assistants is – and has always been – privacy. In order for assistants to be ready when we need them, they must constantly listen to the sounds around them. As we welcome smart speakers into more areas of our lives, we will be increasingly monitored – with all that data going back to technology companies. One result of this is the potential for digital assistants to predict our needs based on our past behaviour. When our devices start to travel with us everywhere they could begin to vocally alert us to certain products that we might find of interest. Geotargeting – the promotion of services based on a consumer’s location – could become the norm as our smart devices remind us that our favourite shop or café is nearby. The scope for advertising revenue is clear, yet allowing intrusive adverts into voice technology could seriously hamper consumer adoption.

At war with the voice

As the buzz around voice assistants continues to grow, we should no longer underestimate their place in the consumer market. The question of whether or not to add voice based technology to consumer devices has been replaced with the choice of which smart assistant to use. As is increasingly the case with other products and services, this generally comes down to a fight between Amazon and Google. In spite of Google Assistant reportedly being six times more effective than Alexa, Amazon provides the market leading home assistant, with an estimated 68 per cent share of total sales in 2017 compared to Google’s 20 per cent. Although many manufacturers have found themselves torn between these two technology giants, Whirlpool, the maker of white goods, has refused to take a side, making its appliances compatible with both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa to allow customers to choose. Maintaining consumer choice is the smart business option as the war of attrition rages on between Google and Amazon. Restricting voice assistants from rival operators – such as Google’s recent decision to block Youtube from Amazon’s Echo Show and Fire TV devices – smacks of small-mindedness and will ultimately only harm consumer uptake in the long run.

Are voice based personal assistants of use to you or your business? Would you like to see voice control added to all home appliances? Is the current buzz around voice technology destined to last? Please share your thoughts.

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