voice

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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Pandora launches interactive voice ads into beta testing

Posted by | Adtech, advertising, Advertising Tech, Media, Mobile, Music, Pandora, streaming music, voice, Voice Ads, voice assistant | No Comments

Pandora is launching interactive voice ads into wider public testing, the company announced this morning. The music streaming service first introduced the new advertising format, where users verbally respond to advertiser prompts, back in December with help from a small set of early adopters, including Doritos, Ashley HomeStores, Unilever, Wendy’s, Turner Broadcasting, Comcast and Nestlé.

The ads begin by explaining to listeners what they are and how they work. They then play a short and simple message followed by a question that listeners can respond to. For example, a Wendy’s ad asked listeners if they were hungry, and if they say “yes,” the ad continued with a recommendation of what to eat. An Ashley HomeStores ads engaged listeners by offering tips on a better night’s sleep.

The format is meant in particular to aid advertisers in connecting with users who are not looking at their phone. For example, when people are listening to Pandora while driving, cooking, cleaning the house or doing some other hands-free activity.

Since their debut, Pandora’s own data indicated the ads have been fairly well-received, in terms of the voice format; 47% of users said they either liked or loved the concept of responding with their voice, and 30% felt neutral. The stats paint a picture of an overall more positive reception, given that users don’t typically like ads at all. In addition, 72% of users also said they found the ad format easy to engage with.

However, Pandora cautioned advertisers that more testing is needed to understand which ads get users to respond and which do not. Based on early alpha testing, ads with higher engagement seemed be those that were entertaining, humorous or used a recognizable brand voice, it says.

As the new ad format enters into beta testing, the company is expanding access to more advertisers. Advertisers including Acura, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Doritos, KFC, Lane Bryant, Purex Laundry Detergent, Purple, Unilever, T-Mobile, The Home Depot, Volvo and Xfinity, among others, are signed up to test the interactive ads.

This broader test aims to determine what the benchmarks should be for voice ads, whether the ads need tweaking to optimize for better engagement, and whether ads are better for driving conversions at the upper funnel or if consumers are ready to take action based on the ads’ content.

Related to the rollout of interactive voice ads, Pandora is also upgrading its “Voice Mode” feature, launched last year and made available to all users last July. The feature will now offer listeners on-demand access to specific tracks and albums in exchange for watching a brand video via Pandora’s existing Video Plus ad format, the same as for text-based searches.

 

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Pandora launches interactive voice ads

Posted by | Ads, Adtech, advertising, Advertising Tech, Mobile, Pandora, voice | No Comments

Pandora has begun to test a new type of advertising format that allows listeners to respond to the ad by speaking aloud. In the new ads, listeners are prompted to say “yes” after the ad asks a question and a tone plays. The ads will then offer more information about the product or brand in question.

Debut advertisers testing the new format include Doritos, Ashley HomeStores, Unilever, Wendy’s, Turner Broadcasting, Comcast and Nestlé.

The ads begin by explaining what they are and how they’ll work. They then play a short and simple message followed by a question to which listeners are supposed to respond.

For example, the Wendy’s ad asks listeners if they’re hungry, and if they say “yes” the ad continues by offering a recommendation about what to eat. The DiGiorno’s pizza ad asks listeners to say “yes” to hear the punchline of a pizza-themed joke. The Ashley HomeStores ad engages listeners by offering tips on getting a better night’s sleep. And so on.

The new format capitalizes on Pandora’s underlying voice technology, which also powers the app’s smart voice assistant, Voice Mode, launched earlier this year. While Voice Mode lets Pandora users control their music hands-free, the voice ads aim to get users to engage with the advertiser’s content hands-free, as opposed to tapping on the screen or visiting a link to get more information.

The company believes these types of ads will be more meaningful as they force listeners to pay attention. For the brand advertisers, voice ads offer a way to more directly measure how many people an ad reached — something that’s not possible with traditional audio ads, which by their nature aren’t clickable.

Pandora announced its plans to test interactive voice ads back in April of this year, initially with San Francisco-based adtech company, Instreamatic. At the time, it said it would launch the new format into beta testing by Q4, as it now has.

The ad format arrives at a time when consumers have become more comfortable talking to digital voice assistants, like Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. There’s also an increased expectation that services we interact with will support voice commands — like when we’re speaking to Fire TV or Apple TV to find something to watch or asking Pandora or Spotify to play our favorite music.

But consumers’ appetite for interactive voice advertisements is still largely untested. Even Amazon limited voice ads on its Alexa platform for fear of alienating users who would find them disruptive to the core experience. Spotify also ran a limited test of voice ads this year.

In Pandora’s case, users don’t have to play along. The company says if the user doesn’t respond within a couple of seconds or if they say no, the music resumes playback.

Pandora says the ads will begin running today for a small subset of listeners using its app.

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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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Amazon upgrades its Fire TV Stick with the new Alexa Voice Remote

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, cord cutting, Fire TV, Gadgets, streaming, streaming media player, TC, voice, voice assistant | No Comments

Amazon is giving its Fire TV Stick an upgrade. The company announced today it will now ship the Fire TV Stick with the new version of the Alexa Voice Remote launched last fall. The remote allows users to control other devices besides their Fire TV, thanks to its support for both Bluetooth and multi-directional infrared. However, the upgraded remote won’t impact the Fire TV Stick’s price, which remains $39.99.

The new Alexa remote arrived alongside the $49.99 Fire TV Stick 4K in October. It’s capable of controlling the TV, soundbar and other AV equipment, and can do things like switch inputs or tune to a channel on your cable box. As a standalone purchase for older Amazon Fire TV devices, the remote was retailing yesterday for $29.99. But today, Amazon is slashing the price by 50 percent, it says.

The voice remote also includes the ability to speak to Alexa with the press of a button, which can help you find shows and movies, control smart home devices, get the news and weather, stream music and more.

Amazon notes the inclusion of the next-gen remote makes the Fire TV Stick the only streaming media player under $40 that includes a remote capable of controlling other AV equipment besides the TV. This could be a selling point for Fire TV Stick versus Roku, whose high-end voice remotes are focused on controlling power and volume on TVs, or its own Roku wireless speakers.

At CES this year, Amazon said its Fire TV platform as a whole had now topped 30 million active users, which seemed to put it just ahead of Roku’s 27 million. By swapping in a better remote with the flagship Fire TV Stick device, Amazon is looking to solidify its lead gained by steep discounts on its devices over Black Friday and the larger 2018 holiday shopping season.

The updated Fire TV Stick will also be the first to ship with Amazon’s just-launched, free streaming service IMDb Freedive included. Announced at CES, the service offers a range of free, ad-supported movies and TV shows — a challenge to its rival’s service, The Roku Channel. It will come to other Fire TV devices by way of a software update.

The Fire TV Stick with the new Alexa Voice Remote goes on pre-order today for $39.99 (or £39.99 in the U.K.), and will be available in a bundle with the Echo Dot for $69.98.

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Pandora launches a personalized voice assistant on iOS and Android

Posted by | Apps, Media, Mobile, Music, Pandora, personalization, streaming, streaming service, voice, voice assistant | No Comments

Pandora today announced the launch of its own, in-app voice assistant that you can call up at any time by saying “Hey Pandora,” followed by a request to play the music or podcasts you want to hear. The feature will allow you to not only control music playback with commands to play a specific artist, album, radio or playlist, but will also be capable of delivering results customized to you when responding to vague commands or those related to activity or mood. For example, you’ll get personalized results for requests like “play something new,” “play more like this,” “play music for relaxing,” “play workout music,” “play something I like” and others.

The company reports strong adoption of its service on voice-activated speakers, like Amazon Echo devices, where now millions of listeners launch Pandora music by speaking — a trend that inspired the move to launch in-app voice control.

“Voice is just an expected new way that you engage with any app,” notes Pandora Chief Product Officer Chris Phillips. “On the mobile app, we’re doing more than just your typical request against the catalog… asking: ‘hey, Pandora,’ to search and play or pause or skip,” he says. “What we’re doing that we think is pretty special is we’re taking that voice utterance of what someone asks for, and we’re applying our personalized recommendations to the response,” Phillips explains.

That means when you ask Pandora to play you something new, the app will return a selection that won’t resemble everyone else’s music, but will rather be informed by your own listening habits and personal tastes.

The way that result is returned may also vary — for some, it could be a playlist, for others an album and for others, it could be just a new song, a personalized soundtrack or a radio station.

“Play something new” isn’t the only command that will yield a personalized response, Pandora says. It will also return personalized results for commands related to your mood or activity — like workout music, something to relax to, music for cooking and more.

For podcasts, it can dig up episodes with a specific guest, play shows by title, or even deliver show recommendations, among other things.

Voice commands can be used in lieu of pressing buttons, too, in order to do things like add songs to a playlist or giving a song you like a thumbs up, for instance.

The new feature, called “Voice Mode,” taps into Pandora’s machine learning and data science capabilities, which is an active battleground between music services.

Spotify, for example, is well known for its deep personalization with its Discover Weekly and other custom playlists, like its Daily Mixes. But its own “voice mode” option is only available for its Premium users, according to a FAQ on the company’s website.

Pandora, meanwhile, is planning to roll out Voice Mode to all users — both free and paid.

For free users, the feature will work in conjunction with an existing ad product that allows users to opt in to watch a video in order to gain temporary access to Pandora’s on-demand service.

While this option is not live at launch, the plan is to allow any user to use the “Hey Pandora” command, then redirect free users with a request to play music on demand to instead play the opt-in ad first.

Pandora Voice Mode will launch today, January 15, to a percentage of the iOS and Android user base — around a million listeners. The company will track the speed, accuracy and performance of its results before rolling it out more broadly over the next couple of months.

Users with a Google Home device can also cast from their Pandora app to their smart speaker, and a similar feature will arrive on Alexa devices soon, the company believes.

Pandora works with Siri Shortcuts, too. That means you can now use voice to launch the app itself, then play a personalized selection of music without having to touch your phone at all.

Voice Mode will be available in the Pandora app via the search bar next to the magnifying glass.

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You can now use Alexa and Cortana to control your Xbox

Posted by | Alexa, console, Cortana, Gaming, Microsoft, TC, voice, voice assistant, xbox | No Comments

You can now control the Xbox from Alexa and Cortana. Microsoft announced his morning it’s introducing a new way to interact with Xbox One using voice commands, by way of an Xbox Skill that works with both Alexa and Cortana, across platforms. The skill will allow users to launch games, adjust the volume, start and stop their broadcasts to Mixer, capture screenshots and more.

For example, players will be able to say to their Echo speaker, “Alexa, start Rocket League,” and the console would power on, sign them in, and launch the game.

To use the new feature with Alexa, players will first have to sign in with their Amazon account then link their Microsoft account to the skill. With Cortana, users will instead have to first sign into the Xbox they want to control, then sign in with their Microsoft account to link the skill on their Windows 10 PC.

They could then say something like “Hey Cortana, tell Xbox to open Netflix.”

 

Microsoft says the skill will work across a range of voice-powered devices, including Windows 10 PC, Amazon Echo devices, Harman Kardon Invoke, Sonos One, or the Cortana and Alexa apps for iOS and Android.

A full list of its commands will be posted to the Xbox Insiders Reddit. 

The Xbox Skill, at launch, will be rolling out gradually to U.S. Xbox Insider rings (Alpha Skip Ahead, Alpha, Beta) as the company takes in feedback from its early adopters. To see if you have the option available, you’ll need to look in Settings –> Devices on your console to see if the “Digital Assistant” setting is visible.

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Sharecuts is creating a community for sharing Siri Shortcuts

Posted by | Apple, Apps, Mobile, siri, voice, voice assistants, voice computing | No Comments

With the upcoming release of iOS 12, Apple is introducing a new app called Shortcuts that will allow users to build custom voice commands for Siri that can be used to kick off a variety of actions in apps. While some apps will directly prompt users to add a Shortcut to Siri, the new Shortcuts app will offer more shortcut suggestions to try, plus the ability to create your own shortcuts and workflows. Now, there’s a new resource for shortcut fans, too – Sharecuts, a directory of shortcuts created and shared by the community.

The site is still very much in the early stages.

Plus, iOS 12 is still in beta testing itself, and the Shortcuts app can only be installed by developers who request access via an invite.

But by the time iOS 12 releases to the public later this fall, Sharecuts’ directory will be filled out and a lot more functional.

The premise, explains Sharecuts’ creator Guilherme Rambo, was to make an easily accessible place where people could share their shortcuts with one another, discover those others have shared, and suggest improvements to existing shortcuts.

“I was talking to a friend [Patrick Balestra] about how cool shortcuts are, and how it should be easier for people to share and discover shortcuts,” says Guilherme. “He mentioned he wanted to build a website for that  – he even had the idea for the name Sharecuts – but he was on vacation without a good internet connection so I decided to just build it myself in one day,” he says.

The site is currently a bare bones, black-and-white page with cards for each shortcut, but an update will bring a more colorful style (see below) and features that will allow users to filter the shortcuts by tags, vote on favorites, among other things.

Above: current site

Guilherme says while the backend is being built to support a larger number of users, only a few people have been invited to upload for the time being. But in the upcoming release, the site will offer a “featured” selection of shortcuts chosen by some well-known members of the Apple community who will serve as curators.

The uploads to the site will also be moderated in the future, to prevent malicious shortcuts and spam from being included in the directory.

The site itself isn’t a new business or startup, Guilherme says, just a side project for now.

It’s written in Swift and open-sourced on GitHub so others can contribute. The page already has a list of ideas for improvements to the Sharecuts site, including the new design, plus more ways to refine, sort, and organize the shortcuts.

It remains to be seen how popular Siri Shortcuts will be with the mainstream iPhone user base.

With iOS 12, Apple is turning its iPhone into an “A.I. phone,” but I believe the Shortcuts app and workflows will remain a power user feature for some time. Mainstream users will gradually warm up to the idea of customizing their Siri interactions by getting prompted to create voice commands by their favorite apps. (E.g. Your coffee shop’s mobile ordering app may push you to add a “Coffee time!” shortcut to Siri.)

Over time, that may lead them to iOS 12’s Shortcuts app to do even more.

But in the near-term, power users will be busy taking advantage of the new Shortcuts app and Siri features to test the powers of Shortcuts. And with Sharecuts, all the other shortcuts enthusiasts can benefit from their enthusiasm and activity, too.

If you already have the beta Shortcuts app installed, you can try out some of the shortcuts featured on Sharecuts today. A couple of the interesting picks include the Siri News Reader which will read you headlines from an RSS feed, the Bitcoin Price checkers, and an always useful tip calculator.

Turn Siri into a personalized news reader with Shortcuts – here’s how I can listen to headlines from @macstoriesnet and @9to5mac via Siri 😎

(Also: thanks @_inside for letting me upload this shortcut to his @sharecutsapp directory. You can find it here: https://t.co/1hBmLB3qhb) pic.twitter.com/PZolKQlKrg

— Federico Viticci (@viticci) July 9, 2018

Above: The news reader shortcut, from Federico Viticci

Those interested in contributing to Sharecuts in the future can register here for an invite.

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Echo’s messaging service may add support for SMS texts from your own ‘Alexa number’

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, Apps, communications, echo, messaging, Mobile, SMS, TC, texting, voice, voice computing | No Comments

 Amazon appears to be planning an expansion of Alexa’s existing messaging capabilities to support sending SMS text messages to friends using your Echo device or Alexa app. That means Echo users could then text anyone using voice commands, not only other Echo owners. According to code found in the Amazon Alexa app, there are references to a new type of phone number – referred to… Read More

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Google’s voice typing tech adds support for 30 more languages, reaching further into Africa, India

Posted by | africa, gboard, Google, india, machine learning, Mobile, Speech Recognition, voice, voice search | No Comments

 Google today is expanding its speech recognition capabilities to support dozens of new languages, particularly those in emerging markets in India and Africa, the company announced this morning. That means more people around the world will gain the ability to search the web by voice as well as type via voice using Google’s keyboard app, Gboard. The company says with the update,… Read More

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