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Where is voice tech going?

Posted by | Alexa, artificial intelligence, Baidu, Column, COVID-19, Extra Crunch, Gadgets, hardware, Headspace, Market Analysis, Media, Mobile, Podcasts, siri, smart speaker, Speech Recognition, Startups, TC, Venture Capital, virtual assistant, voice, voice assistant, voice search, voice technology, Wearables | No Comments
Mark Persaud
Contributor

Mark Persaud is digital product manager and practice lead at Moonshot by Pactera, a digital innovation company that leads global clients through the next era of digital products with a heavy emphasis on artificial intelligence, data and continuous software delivery.

2020 has been all but normal. For businesses and brands. For innovation. For people.

The trajectory of business growth strategies, travel plans and lives have been drastically altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a global economic downturn with supply chain and market issues, and a fight for equality in the Black Lives Matter movement — amongst all that complicated lives and businesses already.

One of the biggest stories in emerging technology is the growth of different types of voice assistants:

  • Niche assistants such as Aider that provide back-office support.
  • Branded in-house assistants such as those offered by BBC and Snapchat.
  • White-label solutions such as Houndify that provide lots of capabilities and configurable tool sets.

With so many assistants proliferating globally, voice will become a commodity like a website or an app. And that’s not a bad thing — at least in the name of progress. It will soon (read: over the next couple years) become table stakes for a business to have voice as an interaction channel for a lovable experience that users expect. Consider that feeling you get when you realize a business doesn’t have a website: It makes you question its validity and reputation for quality. Voice isn’t quite there yet, but it’s moving in that direction.

Voice assistant adoption and usage are still on the rise

Adoption of any new technology is key. A key inhibitor of technology is often distribution, but this has not been the case with voice. Apple, Google, and Baidu have reported hundreds of millions of devices using voice, and Amazon has 200 million users. Amazon has a slightly more difficult job since they’re not in the smartphone market, which allows for greater voice assistant distribution for Apple and Google.

Image Credits: Mark Persaud

But are people using devices? Google said recently there are 500 million monthly active users of Google Assistant. Not far behind are active Apple users with 375 million. Large numbers of people are using voice assistants, not just owning them. That’s a sign of technology gaining momentum — the technology is at a price point and within digital and personal ecosystems that make it right for user adoption. The pandemic has only exacerbated the use as Edison reported between March and April — a peak time for sheltering in place across the U.S.

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Software will reshape our world in the next decade

Posted by | Alexa, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, blockchain, Column, cryptocurrency, cybernetics, Education, Entertainment, food, Gadgets, iPhone, Opinion, payments, robotics, San Francisco, smartphone, Social, TC, technology, video conferencing | No Comments
Alfred Chuang
Contributor

Alfred Chuang is general partner at Race Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm.

As I was wrapping up a Zoom meeting with my business partners, I could hear my son joking with his classmates in his online chemistry class.

I have to say this is a very strange time for me: As much as I love my family, in normal times, we never spend this much time together. But these aren’t normal times.

In normal times, governments, businesses and schools would never agree to shut everything down. In normal times, my doctor wouldn’t agree to see me over video conferencing.

No one would stand outside a grocery store, looking down to make sure they were six feet apart from one another. In times like these, decisions that would normally take years are being made in a matter of hours. In short, the physical world — brick-and-mortar reality— has shut down. The world still functions, but now it is operating inside everyone’s own home.

This not-so-normal time reminds me of 2008, the depths of the financial crisis. I sold my company BEA Systems, which I co-founded, to Oracle for $8.6 billion in cash. This liquidity event was simultaneously the worst and most exhausting time of my career, and the best time of my career, thanks to the many inspiring entrepreneurs I was able to meet.

These were some of the brightest, hardworking, never-take-no-for-an-answer founders, and in this era, many CEOs showed their true colors. That was when Slack, Lyft, Uber, Credit Karma, Twilio, Square, Cloudera and many others got started. All of these companies now have multibillion dollar market caps. And I got to invest and partner with some of them.

Once again, I can’t help but wonder what our world will look like in 10 years. The way we live. The way we learn. The way we consume. The way we will interact with each other.

What will happen 10 years from now?

Welcome to 2030. It’s been more than two decades since the invention of the iPhone, the launch of cloud computing and one decade since the launch of widespread 5G networks. All of the technologies required to change the way we live, work, eat and play are finally here and can be distributed at an unprecedented speed.

The global population is 8.5 billion and everyone owns a smartphone with all of their daily apps running on it. That’s up from around 500 million two decades ago.

Robust internet access and communication platforms have created a new world.

The world’s largest school is a software company — its learning engine uses artificial intelligence to provide personalized learning materials anytime, anywhere, with no physical space necessary. Similar to how Apple upended the music industry with iTunes, all students can now download any information for a super-low price. Tuition fees have dropped significantly: There are no more student debts. Kids can finally focus on learning, not just getting an education. Access to a good education has been equalized.

The world’s largest bank is a software company and all financial transactions are digital. If you want to talk to a banker live, you’ll initiate a text or video conference. On top of that, embedded fintech software now powers all industries.

No more dirty physical money. All money flow is stored, traceable and secured on a blockchain ledger. The financial infrastructure platforms are able to handle customers across all geographies and jurisdictions, all exchanges of value, all types of use-cases (producers, distributors, consumers) and all from the start.

The world’s largest grocery store is a software and robotics company — groceries are delivered whenever and wherever we want as fast as possible. Food is delivered via robot or drones with no human involvement. Customers can track where, when and who is involved in growing and handling my food. Artificial intelligence tells us what we need based on past purchases and our calendars.

The world largest hospital is a software and robotics company — all initial diagnoses are performed via video conferencing. Combined with patient medical records all digitally stored, a doctor in San Francisco and her artificial intelligence assistant can provide personalized prescriptions to her patients in Hong Kong. All surgical procedures are performed by robots, with supervision by a doctor of course, we haven’t gone completely crazy. And even the doctors get to work from home.

Our entire workforce works from home: Don’t forget the main purpose of an office is to support companies’ workers in performing their jobs efficiently. Since 2020, all companies, and especially their CEOs, realized it was more efficient to let their workers work from home. Not only can they save hours of commute time, all companies get to save money on office space and shift resources toward employee benefits. I’m looking back 10 years and saying to myself, “I still remember those days when office space was a thing.”

The world’s largest entertainment company is a software company, and all the content we love is digital. All blockbuster movies are released direct-to-video. We can ask Alexa to deliver popcorn to the house and even watch the film with friends who are far away. If you see something you like in the movie, you can buy it immediately — clothing, objects, whatever you see — and have it delivered right to your house. No more standing in line. No transport time. Reduced pollution. Better planet!

These are just a few industries that have been completely transformed by 2030, but these changes will apply universally to almost anything. We were told software was eating the world.

The saying goes you are what you eat. In 2030, software is the world.

Security and protection no longer just applies to things we can touch and see. What’s valuable for each and every one of us is all stored digitally — our email account, chat history, browsing data and social media accounts. It goes on and on. We don’t need a house alarm, we need a digital alarm.

Even though this crisis makes the near future seem bleak, I am optimistic about the new world and the new companies of tomorrow. I am even more excited about our ability to change as a human race and how this crisis and technology are speeding up the way we live.

This storm shall pass. However the choices we make now will change our lives forever.

My team and I are proud to build and invest in companies that will help shape the new world; new and impactful technologies that are important for many generations to come, companies that matter to humanity, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about.

I am hopeful.

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Amazon and Zynga partner on Word Pop, a Words with Friends spinoff created for Alexa

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, Apps, game, Gaming, words with friends, Zynga | No Comments

Zynga’s popular game, Words with Friends, is coming to Alexa. The new voice-powered game will be known as Word Pop, and — sorry — you can’t actually play it with friends right now, even though the game lives within Zynga’s broader Words with Friends franchise. Instead, the new Alexa voice game is viewed as a complement to Zynga’s multiplayer version. It’s a place where players can sharpen their word-building skills, no friends required.

To launch Word Pop, you’ll say “Alexa, open Word Pop” on any Alexa device to get started.

In the game, Alexa will challenge the players to create as many words as possible from a six-letter bank, through a series of one-minute sessions. During this time, players must say or spell as many words as they can, while earning points for both the number and length of the words they find.

On Alexa devices with a screen, like the Echo Show, there will also be a visual component where players will see their letter banks and completed words. Arguably, the game is better this way as it allows you to view the letters and combinations much like you can on a mobile device or computer. Without the screen, the game will prove much more challenging — though that may appeal to some Words with Friends experts.

The companies characterize their teaming up on the new title as a “partnership,” where both Amazon and Zynga’s teams worked together to build the game. However, there isn’t currently a revenue-sharing situation, we understand, as the game is free and doesn’t offer in-app purchases. (Of course, if the title proves popular enough, the companies could likely revisit that decision.)

In the meantime, however, the companies see the opportunity to build their respective brands. Zynga can generate interest in its aging, cross-platform Words with Friends franchise by way of the new Alexa skill, while Amazon gets to introduce the idea of Alexa gaming to consumers via a well-known industry brand and popular game that users will already know how to play.

“I’m thrilled that by adding Word Pop to the Words With Friends family, players will be able to test and improve their word skills, making them even better Words With Friends players,” said Bernard Kim, president of Publishing at Zynga, in a statement. “The beauty of Words With Friends is that even after ten years, we’re still discovering new ways for the franchise to bring joy to players around the world. We’re dedicated to experimenting with services such as Alexa and game modes like Word Pop, which gives players a familiar, yet novel experience.”

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The Sonos Arc is an outstanding soundbar, on its own or with friends

Posted by | AirPlay, Alexa, Amazon, Assistant, connected speaker, Gadgets, Google, hardware, HDMI, LG, oled, play:1, play:3, Reviews, smart speakers, Sonos, soundbar, Speaker, TC, wireless speaker, wireless technology | No Comments

Sonos has been releasing new hardware at a remarkably consistent and frequent pace the past couple of years, and what’s even more impressive is that these new releases are consistently excellent performers. The new Sonos Arc soundbar definitely fits that pattern, delivering the company’s best ever home theater sound device with performance that should convert even diehard 5.1 traditionalists.

Basics

The Sonos Arc is a soundbar that’s designed to integrate wirelessly with your Sonos home audio system, as well as accepting audio from your TV or A/V receiver via HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC). Just about every modern TV should have at least one HDMI ARC port, and basically that just means that in addition to acting as a standard HDMI input for video sources, it can also offer audio output to a connected speaker or stereo system.

The Arc also comes with an HDMI to optical digital audio adapter in case your setup lacks ARC support (if a TV doesn’t have that, it almost surely has a TOSLINK digital audio output port) to cover all the bases. It also works as a wireless speaker that connects via Sonos’ dedicated mesh networking tech to other Sonos speakers you may have, so that it’s one more addressable multiroom speaker in a whole home wireless audio setup.

Arc can also be combined with other Sonos speakers, including the Sonos Sub, as well as Sonos One, One SL, Play:1 and others for setting up a more complete wireless 5.1 setup with a subwoofer and two rears. That’s an optional enhancement, however, and not necessary to take advantage of the Sonos Arc’s excellent virtual surround rendering, which with this new hardware also includes Dolby Atmos surround sound encoding for the first time on a Sonos soundbar.

Design

The Sonos Arc really comes from the modern design pedigree that Sonos has put into its hardware releases since the debut of the Sonos One, which means monoblock coloring (in either black or white), smooth lines and rounded hole grill designs that look a lot more contemporary than the contrast color grills on the Play:1 for example.

Arc looks like a spiritual successor to the Sonos Beam, the first Sonos soundbar to feature a built-in mic and support for virtual voice assistants including Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. But it’s also a lot larger than the Sonos Beam at 45″ long — much more like the Sonos Playbar and Playbase that marked the company’s entry into the category.

For a sense of how long it is, it runs almost the full length of my LG 65″ C7 OLED TV. It’s also a bit taller than the Sonos Beam, coming in at 3.4″. For my use, that was still short enough that it doesn’t obscure any of the TV’s display when it’s sitting on a TV bench in front of the television from my regular viewing angle, but your mileage may vary, and if you had a similar setup with the Beam, just note that you’ll need a bit more clearance with the Arc.

The larger size isn’t just for show — it helps Sonos deliver much better sound vs. the lower-priced Beam. Inside the Arc, there are 11 drivers, including two upward-facing ones, and two that face out either end of the long cylindrical soundbar. The end effect of all of these drivers, and the true distance separation that’s made possible by its long profile, is much more effective left/right/rear sound separation.

On the back, there’s a vent bar that provides additional sound quality improvements and holds the mounting outlets for attaching the Arc to a compatible wall mount. Either wall-mounted or resting atop furniture, the Arc is an attractive piece of hardware, and with just two cables required to run to power and the TV, it’s a minimal solution to home theater clutter that should mesh well with most home decor.

Performance

I mentioned this briefly above, but it’s amazing what the Sonos Arc can accomplish in terms of sound separation and virtual surround immersion with just a single speaker. It’s easily the best sound rendering I’ve experienced from a Sonos soundbar, and likely the best audio quality from a soundbar I’ve heard, period.

Stereo sound field testing shows that audio tracks really well left-to-right, and the Dolby Atmos support really shows its benefits when you have content that offers it. Speech intelligibility is also really fantastic on the soundbar alone, whereas with the Beam, I’ve found that it can suffer in some situations unless you have a Sonos Sub added to your system to take care of the low end frequencies and allow the soundbar to produce better clarity on the high end.

The Arc definitely benefits from pairing it with a Sonos Sub and other Sonos speakers acting as rears, but the soundbar on its own is a much better performer than anything Sonos has previously offered, in case you’re looking to save some money or you just want to focus on the most minimal sound setup possible that isn’t just terrible built-in TV speakers.

Sonos has also included a microphone on the Arc, which allows you to use it with either Alexa or Google Assistant to play music, turn on the TV and do plenty more. It’s a great feature that’s optional if you’d rather leave the mic off or not connect any assistants, but for me it’s perfectly suited to a device that essentially sits at the center of the living room experience. The mic seems very able to pick up commands even in a large room when you’re quite far away from it, so it could be the only voice-enabled smart speaker you require in even a large open-concept living/dining/kitchen space.

The Arc also acts as an Apple AirPlay 2 speaker out of the box. For minimalists, this is yet another selling point, since it means you can use it wirelessly with an Apple TV mounted to the back of your TV, for instance — ridding yourself of one more wire if you want. It’s also super easy to stream any music or audio from your phone to the Arc as a result, even without opening up the Sonos app.

The updated Sonos app

Speaking of that app, the Sonos Arc is exclusively compatible with Sonos’ new, forthcoming mobile app, which arrives on June 8. This app will live alongside the existing one, which will continue to be available in order to support older, legacy Sonos hardware that won’t work with the more modern version.

This new Sonos app, which I used as a beta during the testing period for the Sonos Arc, is not as dramatic a change as I was expecting. The app definitely offers a better, cleaner and more modern interface, but everything is still located pretty much where you’d expect it to be if you were a user of the existing version. Most of the changes are probably happening under the hood, where the app is presumably designed to work with the more modern chipsets, higher memory and updated wireless technology of more recently released Sonos speakers and accessories.

Long story short, the new app is a pleasant, fresh take on a familiar control system that seems both more performant and aesthetically better suited to modern Sonos speakers like the Arc. Even in beta, it didn’t give me any problems during my two weeks testing the Arc, and worked perfectly with all my services and voice assistants.

Bottom line

The Sonos Arc is definitely a premium soundbar, with a $799 price tag and great audio quality to match. It’s a fantastic successor to the Playbar and Playbase that exceeds both of those in every regard, and a great companion to the Beam, which means Sonos’ home theater lineup now offers excellent options for a range of budgets.

If you want the best, most versatile and well-designed wireless soundbar available, the Sonos Arc is the speaker for you.

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The new August Wi-Fi Smart Lock is now available, and it’s the connected smart lock to beat

Posted by | Airbnb, Alexa, Assa Abloy, August Home, Best-Buy, Bluetooth, Gadgets, Google, hardware, lock, Reviews, Security, smart lock, smartphone, TC, technology, wi-fi, yale, yves behar | No Comments

It’s been a few years since August introduced any new hardware, but its August Wi-Fi Smart Lock, which it debuted at CES this year, is now available. This is the new flagship in the August lineup, replacing the August Smart Lock Pro as the latest and greatest feature-packed connected lock from the company, and it brings an improved design along with built-in Wi-Fi. August’s existing locks are the market leaders in easy conversion kits for existing thumbturn deadbolts, and the August Wi-Fi Smart Lock improves upon that reputation in every way.

Design

The August Wi-Fi Smart Lock has a great design pedigree already, since the company was originally co-founded by Yves Béhar. Béhar spearheaded the design of this generation as well, and the result is a look that is recognizably August, but with upgraded looks and tactile improvements, too. The satin nickel finish on my review hardware looked great and premium (it also comes in black), and the textured outer edge feels great when turning the lock to manually lock/unlock. There’s now a slightly raised “pointer” to provide a quick visual indicator of whether the door is locked or unlocked, as well.

The biggest design change versus the August Smart Lock Pro, however, is that it’s quite a bit smaller. August says it’s 45% smaller by volume, in fact, and 20% slimmer front to back, and the size savings definitely show. The rather large dimensions of the Smart Lock Pro meant that it wasn’t able to be installed on some doors, so there’s a practical, functional benefit to the change, but it also just looks a lot nicer and is less likely to stick out among the rest of your home decor.

The smaller design was made possible despite the inclusion of Wi-Fi built-in, partly because of the switch to CR2 batteries, which are a lot less common than the AAs used by the Smart Lock Pro, but which you should still be able to find pretty easily at a drugstore or via Amazon.

Size aside, the design still provides a great, easy to use manual turn for physically unlocking and locking your door. The install process is also still very easy, even if you’re not particularly handy. August even provides paint-safe tape in the box for securing the other side of your lock while you remove the thumb plate, and its app gives you easy instructions for matching the right included size adapter depending on your deadbolt manufacturer. Replacing my own thumb turn took about five minutes start to finish.

Features

The whole point of August’s technology is that it provides a way to lock and unlock your door with your phone. With the August Wi-Fi Smart Lock, that’s a lot less complicated than it has been in the past, because it has Wi-Fi built-in. Previous August locks relied exclusively on Bluetooth, and required that you also purchase and own a separate Connect dongle, which plugs into a standard wall socket, to connect to the lock itself via Bluetooth and act as a bridge to your Wi-Fi network.

Doing away with the need for a Connect means you connect the Wi-Fi Smart Lock to your network during setup, and then it’s reachable anywhere using the August smartphone app. You can easily tap to lock and unlock the door so long as you have an active data connection, and you can do a lot more besides, including granting others access.

August allows you to provision virtual keys to friends via email (they’ll be asked to register for an account if they don’t have one). This is a popular feature for Airbnb hosts, because you can also revoke permission once you no longer want someone to have access. It’s also great for letting in neighbors to feed your pets (once travel is an option again, of course) and for giving family an easy way to check in. Plus, you can share it with other members of your households and make them owners for top-level access and controls, as well.

You can also set the August Wi-Fi Smart Lock to automatically lock once you close the door, either immediately or after a set time that you can customize. This works using DoorSense, which is facilitated by a magnetic sensor that August includes in the box and that you install in your door frame upon setup.

Auto-unlock for me has worked most of the time, though I have had a few occasions where upon returning, I get a “Welcome home” notification from the August app, but the door doesn’t actually unlock and I have to do so by opening the app and pressing the button. In general, however, it works well, and is a great benefit when you return home with your arms full of groceries, for instance.

Performance

The August Wi-Fi Smart Lock brings an updated design and integrated Wi-Fi, but it doesn’t change much in terms of the core functionality of August’s previous locks, and it also seems to be at least a match for prior generations when it comes to reliability. Using the app, I was consistently able to both lock and unlock the door, both within and outside of the home.

August also offers integration with voice assistants, including Alexa, Google Home and HomeKit. These I found a bit more unreliable, with at least one actual failed unlock attempt via HomeKit. But overall they also performed mostly well, with a bit more lag than doing things via the August app directly. You’re also able to unlock via voice command, though the app wisely forces you to register an authorization code to protect against manipulation, like someone trying to yell at Alexa through your door to unlock the unit.

August also offers the option to receive push notification about lock and unlock events, and stores a whole history of the lock’s usage, including door open and closed status, manual/automatic/remote locking and unlocking events and more. It’s a great way to maintain peace of mind about who’s accessing your home, when and how.

Bottom line

August has a long history of building connected locks, and its reputation has earned it both accolades and a 2017 acquisition by leading international lock maker Assa Abloy, which operates a number of brands, including Yale. This is the first lock that it has launched since that acquisition, and it’s a promising indicator that the deal hasn’t dulled their edge when it comes to August-branded product development. This is a great smart lock, with fast and easy installation and ergonomic, visually pleasing design and broad compatibility. Its auto-lock and unlock features really change the way you go about everything from running errands to walking the dog — it’s surprising how much a little convenience can make even the most mundane tasks more pleasant.

The August Wi-Fi Smart Lock is available for $249.99 via August.com and Best Buy, and will expand availability to additional retailers beginning May 17.

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Sonos debuts new Arc soundbar, next-generation Sonos Sub, and Sonos Five speaker

Posted by | Alexa, consumer electronics, Gadgets, hardware, operating system, play:3, smart speakers, Sonos, soundbar, Speaker, TC | No Comments

Sonos has introduced a trio of new hardware today, adding three new smart speakers to its lineup, including the Sonos Arc soundbar that includes Dolby Atmos support, as well as Sonos Five, the next version of its Sonos Play:5 speaker, and a third-generation Sonos Sub. All of these will require the new S2 app that Sonos announced it will release to customers starting on June 8, which will introduce higher-res audio, a new UI and more.

The new Sonos Arc retails for $799, while the Sonos Sub is priced at $699 and the Sonos Five will set you back $499; all three are available for pre-order directly via the Sonos website. They’ll start shipping and become available at retail globally beginning on June 10.

This latest generation of Sonos soundbar succeeds the Sonos Beam, one the first of Sonos speakers to include support for Alexa after the introduction of the Sonos One in 2017. Beam is a lower-cost option, more compact option, available for $399, whereas Arc is a larger soundbar that more closely resembles the Playbar and Playable speakers that Sonos previously sold. Arc seems designed to replace both, since neither currently appears on the updated Sonos website following this launch.

Sonos describes the Arc’s audio as “rich, realistic 3D sound” that emphasizes a “premium audio experience” with “crisp dialogue.” It’s also the first Sonos soundbar with Dolby Atmos support, which it manages using two new height channels that are designed to render all 5.1 channels accurately with room-filling qualities. When the signal isn’t a true 5.1 one, those are repurposed to help with low-end for better bass.

The new third-generation Sonos Sub has more memory and processing power than previous iterations, as well as a new wireless radio for connecting to the rest of your system.

Sonos Five, meanwhile, has the same acoustic design as the Play:5, but with more memory, pricing power and a new radio on board as well. It also now comes in a full white version, whereas the previous generation only offered a white face with a black body.

As mentioned, all three of these will work with the new Sonos S2 app the company is launching in June — but these speakers will only work with that app, because of the operating system updates the app includes, which brings improved security and support for better audio quality when streaming.

That S2 app is the future of the company, but it will come with some compromises for long-time Sonos users. The most important of which is that if you have older Sonos hardware, you’ll need to remain on the S1 network. Those devices include some of the oldest that Sonos makes, but it’s definitely dangling a carrot for upgraders here with this new lineup to convince them to retire those in order to upgrade to the new experience.

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Shopping via smart speakers is not taking off, report suggests

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, eCommerce, forecast, Gadgets, purchases, shopping, smart speakers | No Comments

U.S. consumers aren’t adopting voice-based shopping as quickly as expected, according to a new report today from eMarketer. While consumers have been happy to bring smart speakers into their home, they continue to use them more often for simple commands — like playing music or getting information, for example — not for making purchases. However, the overall number of voice shoppers is growing. It’s just slower than previously forecast, the analysts explain.

By the end of this year, eMarketer estimates that 21.6 million people will have made a purchase using their smart speaker. That’s lower than the Q2 2019 forecast, which expected the number to reach 23.6 million.

Still, it’s important to point out that the overall number of people making purchases via a smart speaker is growing. It will even pass a milestone this year, when 10.8% of all digital buyers in the U.S. will have made a purchase using their smart speaker.

EMarketer attributes the slower-than-anticipated growth to a number of factors, including that security concerns are leading people to not yet fully trust smart speakers and their makers. Many consumers would also prefer a device with a screen so they could preview the items before committing to buy. Apple and Google have addressed the latter by introducing smart home hubs that include screens, speakers and built-in voice assistants. But consumers may have already bought traditional Echo and Google Home devices and don’t feel the need to upgrade.

In addition, the report upped the estimates for percentage of users listening to audio (81.1%) or making inquiries (77.8%).

“Though there are thousands of smart speaker apps that do everything from let you order takeout to find recipes or play games, many consumers don’t realize that they need to take extra and more specific steps to utilize all capabilities,” said eMarketer principal analyst Victoria Petrock. “Instead, they stick with direct commands to play music, ask about the weather or ask questions, because those are basic to the device.”

To be fair, a forecast like this can’t give a complete picture of smart speaker usage. Many consumers do ask Alexa to add items to a shopping list, for instance, which they then go on to buy online at some point — but that wouldn’t be considered voice-based purchasing. Instead, the smart speaker sits as the top of the funnel, capturing a consumer’s intention to buy later, but doesn’t trigger the actual purchase.

That said, Amazon, in particular, has failed to capitalize on the potential for voice shopping, given how easily it can tie a voice command to a purchase from its site. Perhaps it became a little gun-shy from all those mistaken purchases, but the company hasn’t innovated on voice shopping features. There are a number of ways Amazon could make voice shopping a habit or turn one-time purchases into subscriptions, just by way of simple prompts.

Amazon could also develop a set of features, similar to Honey (now owned by PayPal), that allow users track price drops and sales, then alert Echo owners using Alexa’s notifications platform or even an “Amazon companion” skill, that could be added to users’ daily Flash Briefings (e.g. “The item you were watching is now $50 off. The new price is…$X…would you like to buy it?”). The companion could also track out-of-stock items, alert you to new arrivals from a favorite brand, or even send product photos to the Alexa companion app, as suggested deals.

Instead, Alexa voice shopping remains fairly basic. Without improvements, consumers will likely continue to avoid the option.

EMarketer also today adjusted its forecast for overall smart speaker usage. Instead of the 84.5 million U.S. smart speaker users, the 2020 estimate has been dropped to 83.1 million users, indicating slightly slower adoption.

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BMW says ‘ja’ to Android Auto

Posted by | Alexa, Android, Android Auto, artificial intelligence, Assistant, automotive, BMW, business model, CarPlay, computing, Cortana, Dieter May, digital services, Google, Microsoft, Mobile, operating systems, smartphones | No Comments

BMW today announced that it is finally bringing Android Auto to its vehicles, starting in July 2020. With that, it will join Apple’s CarPlay in the company’s vehicles.

The first live demo of Android Auto in a BMW will happen at CES 2020 next month. After that, it will become available as an update to drivers in 20 countries with cars that feature the BMW OS 7.0. BMW will support Android Auto over a wireless connection, though, which somewhat limits its comparability.

Only two years ago, the company said that it wasn’t interested in supporting Android Auto. At the time, Dieter May, who was then the senior VP for Digital Services and Business Model, explicitly told me that the company wanted to focus on its first-party apps in order to retain full control over the in-car interface and that he wasn’t interested in seeing Android Auto in BMWs. May has since left the company, though it’s also worth noting that Android Auto itself has become significantly more polished over the course of the last two years.

“The Google Assistant on Android Auto makes it easy to get directions, keep in touch and stay productive. Many of our customers have pointed out the importance to them of having Android Auto inside a BMW for using a number of familiar Android smartphone features safely without being distracted from the road, in addition to BMW’s own functions and services,” said Peter Henrich, senior vice president Product Management BMW, in today’s announcement.

With this, BMW will also finally offer support for the Google Assistant after early bets on Alexa, Cortana and the BMW Assistant (which itself is built on top of Microsoft’s AI stack). The company has long said it wants to offer support for all popular digital assistants. For the Google Assistant, the only way to make that work, at least for the time being, is Android Auto.

In BMWs, Android Auto will see integrations into the car’s digital cockpit, in addition to BMW’s Info Display and the heads-up display (for directions). That’s a pretty deep integration, which goes beyond what most car manufacturers feature today.

“We are excited to work with BMW to bring wireless Android Auto to their customers worldwide next year,” said Patrick Brady, vice president of engineering at Google. “The seamless connection from Android smartphones to BMW vehicles allows customers to hit the road faster while maintaining access to all of their favorite apps and services in a safer experience.”

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Alexa developers can now personalize their skills by recognizing the user’s voice

Posted by | Alexa, alexa skills, Amazon, Amazon Hardware Event 2019, Gadgets, voice | No Comments

Amazon Alexa is already capable of identifying different voices to give personalized responses to different users in the household, thanks to the added support for voice profiles two years ago. Now, those same personalization capabilities will be offered to Alexa Skill developers, Amazon has announced.

Alongside Amazon’s big rollout of new consumer devices on Wednesday, the company also introduced a new “skill personalization” feature for the Alexa Skills Kit that lets developers tap into the voice profiles that customers create through the Alexa companion app or from their device.

This expanded capability lets developers make skills that are able to remember a user’s custom settings, address their preferences when using the skill and just generally recognize the different household members who are speaking at the time, among other things.

To work, Alexa will send a directed identifier — a generated string of characters and numbers — to the skill in question, if the customer has a voice profile set up. Every time the customer returns to that skill, the same identifier is shared. This identifier doesn’t include any personally identifiable information, Amazon says, and is different for each voice profile for each skill the customer users.

Skill developers can then leverage this information to generate personalized greetings or responses based on the customers’ likes, dislikes and interests.

If the customer doesn’t want to use skill personalization even though they configured a voice profile, they can opt out of the feature in the Alexa app.

Personalization could be a particular advantage to Alexa skills like games, where users may want to save their progress, or to music or podcasts/audio programming skills, where taste preferences come into play.

However, Alexa’s process for establishing voice profiles still requires manual input on users’ parts — people have to configure the option in the Alexa companion app’s settings, or say to Alexa, “learn my voice.” Many consumers may not know it’s even an option — which means developers interested in the feature may have to educate users by way of informational tips in their own apps, at first.

The feature is launching into preview, which means Amazon is just now opening up the ability to select developers. Those interested in putting the option to use will have to apply for access and wait to hear back.

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Ears-on with Amazon’s new Echo earbuds, framebuds, and ringbud

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, Amazon Hardware Event 2019, artificial intelligence, echo buds, echo frames, echo loop, Gadgets, hardware, TC, Wearables, wireless earbuds | No Comments

Amazon announced more than a few devices today during an event at its headquarters in Seattle, and it was the smallest gadgets that made the biggest impression. The company built Alexa into earbuds, glasses and a ring with the Echo Buds, Echo Frames and Echo Loop, respectively. I’ve tried them all out.

The ones people are most likely to actually want are the earbuds, of course. With Bose noise reduction and Alexa functions built in, they’ll be a popular option for anyone who doesn’t want to take out their phone, but also doesn’t want to wear large over-hear headphones.

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The Echo Buds are somewhat large — bigger than several sets of wireless headphones I’ve seen and tried, though they were comfortable after being corkscrewed into my ear.

They have two modes: noise reduction and passthrough, which you switch between with a double tap on either bud. The noise reduction was considerable, but certainly not to the level you’d expect from a pair of over-ears. In-ear headphones already provide a physical barrier to sound getting in, but the addition of three microphones on each ear (two external and one internal) let it do the usual electronic reduction as well. I could still hear the crowd around me and people speaking to me, but it was easily drowned out by the Billie Eilish song they queued up.

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Passthrough provided a quick and clear version of surrounding audio with no noticeable delay. Music and other stuff can still be played in this mode and it blended pretty seamlessly in.

Of course the Echo Buds, like pretty much everything else at the event, have Alexa built in. You get at the service via a wake word, a process that worked well for me.

Their little case looks more fiddly than it is. Magnets snap the contacts onto each other and it begins charging immediately. You should get some 4-5 hours with the buds, out to 20 hours if you drain the case too.

About five feet away from these headphones, and with a half hour wait to test out, were the new Echo Frames. These glasses can be customized with your prescription, though sadly the design and material are locked in.

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The oversized arms of the glasses house the Alexa hardware, and while the glasses themselves are pretty light, the thickness is definitely noticeable from any angle. The underside of the right arm has an activation button and a volume rocker, as well as the port for magnetic charging. The big shiny sides are touch sensitive; you swipe to accept a call, respond to Alexa offering more info and so on.

The sound is a bit like someone whispering in your ear — you wouldn’t want to listen to music on these, the Amazon folks admitted. But speech was clear and Alexa commands were handled quickly.

The speakers aren’t exactly hidden: Each arm has two speakers inside, each of which has two “ports,” one on top and one on bottom. I asked the demonstrator probably five times why there are ports on the top if the sound needs to come out the bottom, but all she would say is that it’s how they made the directional audio work.

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Perhaps that’s also why I could hear the Alexa responses from a foot or two away in a crowded room. You can configure it so only certain things get played automatically, which is good, because if the person on the bus next to me heard some of the texts I get, they might be alarmed.

Honestly it’s not much worse, though a bit clearer, than if someone is using bad earbuds. Just be aware that if you use these things, others might be hearing that whispered text conversation too.

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Last, and weirdest, is the Echo Loop. It’s a big fat ring that you can use to ask Alexa questions and hear the answers. The big part with the dots isn’t actually the speaker, but rather part of the microphone array — presumably for subtracting ambient noise so the speech recognition works better. The inside of the ring is where you’ll find the tiny speaker — the smallest of any Amazon device, it was said — and mic.

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You tap a button to activate Alexa, and the ring will vibrate to let you know it’s time to talk. You then ask your hand the question you have in mind, and afterwards cup the ring to your ear — right up to it, because this speaker is tiny. A second or two later, out comes Alexa’s voice, sounding like an old transistor radio, telling you the weather in Barcelona or whatever.

Does it work? Yes, it does. It’s a ring you can ask questions. The speaker is pretty quiet and you need to find the right position to hear it well (admittedly it was fairly loud in the room), but the ring speaks.

It’s not for everybody, which is why it, along with the glasses, are part of the new Day One Edition series of questionable devices. But if you can think of a way it might be useful, be assured: It works as advertised.

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