Opinion: The future of voice user interfaces

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Labber Gar Thomas writes that the potential of voice user interfaces rests in their ability to provide seamless experiences across multiple devices.

VUI, AI, AR and VR — these are the acronyms that are dominating technology forecasters’ trending lists for 2018. All of these innovations have the potential to be life-changing, but the technology that has me the most excited is VUI, or voice user interfaces.

VUI refers to more than the technology of voice. It’s more so the interconnection of devices. The explosion of VUI has come about at the same time as we’ve started to have more fluid cross-device experiences. Imagine you wake up in the morning and ask Alexa to play your favourite podcast on Spotify. You don’t finish it before leaving home, but as you start your commute, you open Spotify on your phone and you resume your podcast at the point where you paused. A small convenience, sure. But restricting those barriers and adapting to the user’s circumstance creates a very slick experience.

What are the problems?

When pondering the internet of things, I can’t help but think we will have to design and build for hundreds of platforms and devices to make interactions like the one described above work. Whether that be in your car, in your home, in your watch or in your head, building a VUI experience for each device will become expensive and time-consuming.

What does that mean for content creators? Broadly, I see three solutions to combat the problem of having to design and build for countless platforms. One option might be to form exclusive partnerships with platforms such as Google and Amazon. Another option might be to build a platform that other platforms and devices can point towards. Or on a much bigger scale, could you go the full shebang and create your own device, taking full control of AI, machine learning and natural language processing? That decision obviously depends on the content creator’s objectives within this space.

The future of VUI

Primarily I think these devices need to build up their artillery of skills and services. In July 2017, Google Assistant had 378 services, whereas Amazon Alexa had 15,069 skills. Alexa entered the market roughly two years before the Google Assistant so these numbers are understandable. Still, even the most obvious and straightforward services that you’d expect Google Assistant to have aren’t in production yet — for example, compatibility with GSuite. These will undoubtedly be available in the near future but currently the existing capabilities feel quite restricting.

I don’t believe the technology behemoths exploring voice user interfaces will be competing within the same markets; rather, users will come to associate each of the voice assistants with a particular service. In my opinion, Alexa will dominate the market when it comes to commerce and Google Assistant will excel in search. With this in mind, I expect we’ll see other big players enter the market — Samsung might subjugate home technology and Apple Siri might be used to connect their devices and may dominate in wearable technology.

While we already know to keep an eye on some companies that have announced their plans for voice devices, others are still leaving us guessing. An interesting omission from this list is Facebook, which hasn’t released any skills or services for a VUI device yet. “When is my friend Mark’s birthday?” “What events have I been invited to this weekend?” “Ask Sarah what she’s up to tonight.” These types of requests would be ideal for the Google Home and Amazon Echo, and yet Facebook remain tight-lipped about any imminent release. Could this mean that Facebook are creating their own platform or device?

I’m extremely excited to see the varieties of context these devices will be used in. We’ve already seen Amazon partner up with Logitech, allowing the Alexa technology to be used in any Ford, Volkswagen and Volvo cars. Samsung and LG are releasing fridges that have voice recognition. I expect we’ll see companies utilising the need for these devices in other areas of our lives —the workplace, the garden, the classroom, the bus stop. The list is endless.

However, if voice is really becoming a fully immersive experience that appears in every aspect of our day, does it not make sense to have one device that we wear, that connects your voice to all your smart devices? A sort of master-control for every user’s own IoT? A watch, for example — maybe Apple will keep dominating the technology market for years to come after all.


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