With its smart “Echo” line of speakers, Amazon has become a trendsetter. Its voice assistant Alexa can now be found in an increasing number of places from thermostats to cars. As such, Amazon has caught its competitors Google and Apple off guard. After all, they had already been on the market for much longer with their own assistants. Now they are rushing to catch up, and with good reason. Voice assistants may still seem like a gimmick today, but their importance will increase significantly.
Smart home technology is just one of the ways we are already witnessing this. Once you can control your home with voice commands, the innovation suddenly starts to make a lot more sense. Entire command sequences can be activated with a single verbal instruction. And this even applies when you don’t have a hand free or can’t find your smartphone.
Alexa, Siri and other assistants are similarly useful in many other places where they are always present. In the morning they’ll give you the weather forecast and your schedule for the day. While driving, they can help you send a message without risk of causing an accident. And in the evening, while cooking, you can add items to your shopping list without burning the rice. Such examples may not seem revolutionary. On the whole, however, they will change how users access digital information and services.
Some issues remain
For all of this to work smoothly, the language assistants have to understand us better and gain an increasing number of skills. None of today’s candidates are perfect in this respect. Sometimes they don’t hear the user correctly and produce gibberish as a result. Sometimes a question or task is simply too demanding for them. And last but not least, they can’t always provide a meaningful response. On the other hand, this is an issue that has already improved noticeably in recent years.
In the meantime, Amazon is expanding its Echo product range and experimenting with off-beat ideas such as an AI-controlled camera called “Echo Look” to provide advice for choosing the right outfit. Google, on the other hand, has launched its Home loudspeaker and is quickly catching up. Its Duplex demo is also showing how human a digital assistant can already sound. Apple has just made its first contribution to the topic with its HomePod. Siri is now an integral part of every apple device. And Microsoft has entered a partnership with Amazon to extend the functionality of its own assistant Cortana in this way.
As is often the case, Samsung is taking its own path with its Bixby assistant. To improve its assistant, the company acquired the start-up Six Five Labs, which was founded by former Siri developers. Bixby will soon be found throughout the company’s wide range of devices. Last but not least, an Echo competitor is in the making and due to appear in 2018.
In a recent press release, Samsung’s executive chairman Eui-Suk Chung said: “We see a world where digital assistants play a bigger role, an intelligent role, where one day everything from our phones, to our fridge, to our sprinkler system will have some sort of intelligence to help us seamlessly interact with all the technology we use each day.”
What the future holds
Throughout the history of computing, user interfaces have become progressively natural to use. The screen and keyboard were one step in this direction. The mouse and graphical user interface were another. Touch screens are the most recent development. The next step will most likely consist of a mix of augmented reality, gestures and voice commands. After all, it is often easier to ask a question or have a conversation than it is to type something or enter multiple details in an online form. This at least applies to the vast majority of users.
As voice assistants increasingly become commonplace, this will also have a significant impact on marketing. As the example of online searching shows, the assistants naturally try to provide the best answer to a question and not ten different answers to choose from. Google’s search results pages have already developed in this direction in recent years. “Voice SEO” will significantly increase in importance in this respect. And the battle for the top spots will be even tougher than it is today. After all, focus will shift from being listed on the first page of Google’s search results to being at the very top of the list to be considered the best answer.
It also remains to be seen how advertising can be integrated into visual assistants. Initial attempts to do so have tended to confuse users. The most sensible and acceptable form for this remains to be determined.