Loud and Clear: Voice Interfaces Form New Battleground

Smart Listening Hubs Are Taking Centre Stage

In 2013, CCS Insight predicted that user interfaces powered by speech would soon become a common way of interacting with ordinary products in the home and other environments, ultimately shifting consumers’ behaviour and their expectations of devices. For many people, voice interactions have moved from awkward to natural thanks to improvements in the accuracy of interpretation and the usefulness of voice commands.

Professor Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Chinese tech company Baidu, describes this neatly here.

The announcement of Google’s new smart hub called Home wasn’t much of a surprise at the company’s I/O developer conference last week. There had been rumours, but it was an obvious development. Amazon’s Echo device, introduced in 2015, has been establishing itself as the centre of millions of households. It doesn’t just help with shopping on Amazon — it can also take commands to stream music through a built-in speaker, and retrieve information from the Internet, responding to basic search queries.

In other words, Amazon placed a voice-activated search engine in the living room and has since launched the Echo Dot and the portable Amazon Tap as ways of extending its reach around the house. It’s clear encroachment into Google’s core business, which hopes to place its own search service into the centre of every house and eventually every room.

Those who have tried Amazon Echo know that its search can be a bit hit-or-miss. Nonetheless, it has become an essential extension in many homes, almost reaching family-member status. It can turn off the lights at night and wake the children in the morning. It’s a real utility.

Amazon has cleverly sought to expand Alexa’s skills — the artificial intelligence behind Amazon Echo — and turn it into a true platform by launching a $100 million fund to encourage developers to work with the company. The results were clear at International CES 2016, where many exhibitors had an Amazon Echo device on their stand for doing demos of their products working with a voice user interface.

We know that no matter how big the market gets, there tends to be a very limited number of platforms that it will support. Though well over a billion smartphones are sold each year, the real choice is between two operating systems. The massive number of computers and game consoles in use doesn’t translate to platform variety. This has a lot to do with the ability and willingness of developers and content providers to make their apps and content available in multiple versions.

Amazon Echo and Google Home are exposing gaps in other companies’ portfolios, so it’s not surprising to hear rumours about more hubs from big players. For example, if Apple has Siri, why doesn’t the company put that digital assistant in an attractive self-contained box that can fit into a living room?

And digital assistants are becoming a busy area that goes beyond voice. Many other players who have developed personal assistants powered by artificial intelligence are working with voice or text input linked to their messaging services. These include Baidu, Facebook, IBM, Kik, Microsoft, Nuance and Samsung, as well as open-source options. Facebook and Microsoft both launched bot frameworks at their developer conferences, and Kik has recently introduced an app store for its bots.

We’re not just in a post-PC era but approaching a post-smartphone age as well, and there are signs that people are ready to move on from a single app per device as the main form of interaction. Devices around us will listen, learn, react, assist and predict.

The utility here is clear. CCS Insight has been encouraging device makers of all types to prepare for a time when interactions are so natural that silicon and software are replaced by personality and charm, at least as far as the user is concerned. We envision this going much further than obedient ovens and dutiful washing machines. Manufacturers who are busy developing individual apps for their newly connected devices need to start looking at voice as a new way of working. Voice isn’t just the new user interface, it’s the new buttons and knobs.

Last week, a new product battleground began in earnest, although there is a more important platform battle as the bigger prize. This is a tangent point between artificial intelligence, natural user interfaces and aesthetics, all powered by connectivity to the cloud with artificial intelligence behind the scenes. We expect several players to enter this market during the coming year, though only a few have what it takes to get all the pieces together.