What is Voice First Technology and How Will it Change The Way We Live?

Neil Tilbury voice technology consultant and voice expert

By Neil Tilbury

Voice Technology Consultant

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You may or may not be aware that voice-first technology has actually been in development since the early 90s. Early adoptions of the voice in technology would ask telephone users who found themselves on an automated telephone system, to pick from a numbered list or answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This would help the automation system navigate them through to the right person to talk to.

These voice-enabled systems may have come as an annoyance to some of us, rolling our eyes, or becoming frustrated, just wanting to talk to a human being on the other end of the phone.

Unbeknown to most of us, that voice technology has been learning from everyday people answering questions in a variety of different tones, accents and languages.

Voice first technology today.

Over the last 25 years voice recognition has lead to the advances in voice technology that we know today. Now we know it as ‘voice-first technology’, and commonly being shortened to just ‘voice first’ or ‘voice’.

Tech giants Apple, Amazon, Samsung, Windows and Google have developed voice first technology, with many saying that voice-first is the most significant disruption to personal technology since the introduction of the common web browser.

It is no doubt in my mind that voice first technology will change the future in how we interact with technology. And here’s why...

Voice first technology first was introduced into the modern tech world known as Siri and was available on Apple’s app store. Siri was adopted onto smartphone technology as a staple feature of Apple’s hardware.

Its safe to say that most of us have experienced Apple’s Siri in one form or another, whether that be on a smartphone, a mac or on an ipad. Subconsciously most of us have all used voice first in our day to day lives, and due to the ‘eyes free’ and ‘hands free’ convenience most of us have safely used it while driving!

using voice assistants whilst driving

Voice assistant sales have been in the hundreds of millions since 2016, and sales have grown year on year with sales at the tail end of 2017 reaching a growth rate of 1,169%.

This year usage of smart speakers are set to rise by 15% to 74 million people in the US alone using voice first technology in their day to day routines.

In Australia some 1.35 million people have a smart speaker with a growth rate of 200% in first 4 months of 2019. Versa’s voice report has shown that one in three (34 per cent) of Australians have said they are considering purchasing a voice first assistant over 2019.

The numbers are big.

This means some 8.5 million Australian users will be using the new wave of voice first technology and the voice assistants via the popular smart speakers. This poses massive opportunities for Australian business owners and consumers.

How does voice first work?

Voice first technology now appears in the form of an assistant, commonly a lady, and you can communicate with her via a ‘smart-speaker’. The Female gender bias has nothing to do with the fact that historically women have been personal assistants.

Research has shown that a female voice assistant is the most well received by women and men. This is because females are seen as more warm, welcoming and nurturing.

Research has also shown that identifying with a gender cue, male or female, users are more likely to feel comfortable communicating with an artificially intelligent assistant. Besides, if voice first users had a voice first assistant that was gender neutral, users would naturally assign a gender to the assistant anyway.

Why are voice assistants usually female?

Currently users of Apple’s Siri can change Siri to a male voice, and users have been able to do this for the last 5 years.

Male voice first assistants could be used in the future for specific subject areas, for instance if a specific brand has a very strong male following, they may decide that their assistant would probably be better received by their customers if it has a male voice.

Which voice platform is best?

The most common smart-speakers and their voice assistants are Amazon’s Alexa on their range of echo devices focusing on retail and commerce, with potential for drawing data from user’s purchasing history.

Google’s home assistant known as ‘Google’ with their google home devices, naturally this will continue to service publishers and its comprehensive search function and user’s interests.

Apple’s ‘Siri’ on their home pod device lends itself to the music market, with their home pod sounding the best in terms of audio quality.

Microsoft’s ‘Cortana’ is popular with the gaming world due to their early adoption of their voice assistant through the x-box.

Samsung’s ‘Bixby’ and its emerging platform aims to serve in a variety of ways, revealing in 2018 that all hardware from Samsung will be voice enabled by 2020.

Some of the bluetooth speaker manufacturers have adopted voice first technology, with JBL enabling Google’s Home Assistant into their technology and Sonos have adopted Amazon’s Alexa into theirs.

Voice first in the home

Like with any adoption of technology to come into the home, it’s natural to have concerns with one’s privacy, however some if not all of the voice assistants are activated with a ‘wake word’.

This is commonly known as ‘hey siri’ on Apple’s hardware, ‘ok google’ on Google’s home assistant, and just ‘Alexa’ on Amazon’s echo devices.

Early adoptions of voice first technology in the home have been asking smart-speakers and their voice assistants for the weather (60 per cent), listening to the news (49 per cent), setting timers, alarms and playing music (64 percent).

Some more avid users of the technology have incorporated other smart devices into the home to connect to their chosen smart speaker, such as wi-fi enabled lights, wi-fi enabled plugs, door entry systems, wi-fi enabled smart screens such as TVs and also security systems incorporating wi-fi enabled cameras (37 per cent).

All of these ‘add-ons’ to one’s chosen voice first assistant have conveniently been labeled smart home devices, and some of us have labeled them as gimmicks, however they have been welcomed by older generations, and those with disabilities to serve them in their daily routines.

Voice first technology allows the users to perform tasks ‘hands free’ and ‘eyes free’. The most obvious adoption of this would be answering the phone whilst driving the car, or asking our smartphone to call someone in our contact list.

For most of us that’s great if you’re lucky enough that you can see, and drive a car.

For elderly users, turning on a light has never been so simple, you can simply say ‘Alexa, turn on the light’, or ‘hey google, turn on the bathroom light’.

The user’s experience can be even more suited to their needs and situation, users of Amazon’s echo devices can set up routines so Alexa can perform more than one task at a time.

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Voice first and the elderly

The amazon alexa platform voice application

In the Alexa application that connects to the Amazon echo device, users can set up a morning routine by selecting smart home devices to turn on and voice apps to play in sequence.

Then a user could say ‘Alexa, good morning’ the lights come on, the day’s local weather is read out by Alexa and the newscast from their favourite news team plays in the form of a flash briefing.

Alexa will even reply in whisper if you whisper the wake word ‘Alexa’ to activate her.

To put this into context, a routine called ‘use the bathroom’ could be made in the Alexa app. If an elderly couple are sleeping and one wants to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, the users can can whisper ‘Alexa, I need to use the bathroom’. Alexa would then turn on the bedroom light at a desired low light setting from their wifi enabled light bulbs, and all the lights leading to the bathroom, and then whisper back ‘ok’. Upon returning from the bathroom and back into bed, the user could whisper ‘Alexa, good night’, Alexa could then turn off all the lights and whisper back ‘sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite’.

Aging and technology aren’t two words that are common in the same sentence, however voice first technology is marrying aging, older adults, and technology together again.

The ongoing development of smartphones and lens technology have lead tech giants to remove buttons from the front panels and screens of phones. This has resulted in the absence of the tactile use and the handling of a mobile phone. It’s easy to comprehend how technology may have worked against the older adults in that regard.

Voice first technology for the elderly people

For many older adults just talking to someone, even a device and getting a response can make all the difference to their day.

Marvee an Alexa skill for older adults helps empower the elderly and their carers to remain connected with their environment just by using their voice. Users of this Alexa skill can even send an ‘I’m ok’ message to their loved ones.

This can make all the difference to caregivers, some family members have busy days and knowing that older members of their family are Ok can reduce stress and extend time between daily visits.

Voice applications and the future

It is easy to see how voice first technology can eventually make someone’s day less ‘mechanical’, with users first having to mechanically programme an app for the voice first assistant to draw a workflow from.

Removing the physicality out of turning on lights or checking the weather may seem pointless to some, arguing the point they have done these tasks for years. However let us not forget how natural it is for us to engage in conversation with one another, so why not our home?

In recent years voice first technology has reached the minds and hands of developers to build ‘voice apps’, and this has broadened the application of voice first to a wider demographics.

Google and Amazon have lead the way early on with Amazon introducing their platform the ‘Skills store’ allowing users to enable specific ‘Skills’ to their echo smart speaker devices.

Google have similarly introduced ‘Google actions’ so users can interact with the google assistant to also activate specific voice apps or ‘actions’ for use in their day.

Samsung have recently upgraded their ‘Bixby’ platform to allow developers to create voice apps called ‘capsules’, users of Samsung hardware can also enable these ‘capsules’ on their devices also broaden their use of voice first in their home.

Samsung to lead the way with smart home devices

Voice first hasn’t just reached user’s homes, as mentioned before voice had reached phone calls and mobile devices long before their smart speaker home applications.

Even though voice first technology isn’t widely used yet, tech giants Amazon, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and Google are preparing for when the masses catch up to the daily use of voice first.

Headphones and voice technology

In 2018 Apple launched their ‘Airpods’, wireless earbuds with touch control for playing, stopping and selecting music, answering the phone, use of voice assistant Siri and their very own wireless charging and storage box.

Amazon aren’t far behind, with their own design and big push to make their voice first assistant ‘Alexa’ mobile. There are no guarantees that Amazon’s device will be able to switch between devices seamlessly as Apple’s Airpods do, however it is a great step into the mobile application of the ‘hands free’ and ‘eyes free’ that will drive the future of personal technology.

Apple airpods with built in siri voice technology

When you consider that the average person commuting to and from work may spend some 200 hours in their car per year, the car becomes a space where a large amount of someone’s time is ‘transitional’.

Many have adopted the popular narrow casting style of podcast called “flash briefings” as a means to educate, learn and be entertained on the move.

Invites from Amazon are soon to be released for the Echo Auto device, so users can use the voice assistant in their car. Users will be able to activate and use any Alexa skill enabled in their Alexa app whilst driving.

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