The Future is Voice First

Kirstyn Macartney on January 15, 2018

We’re on the cusp of a new year, and the cusp of a new era in technology: voice-first. Even the most technologically-resistant among us recognize the inherent convenience of simply asking a device to execute day-to-day tasks. Setting a timer, playing a song, or reading the news, for example, are among the top functions enabled by Echo users. Many users don’t want to return to life without voice-enabled devices. Luckily, it seems they won’t have to! In 2017 alone, 35.6 million devices shipped worldwide—a nearly 130% jump in year-over-year sales—and exceeded insider predictions by more than 10 million devices. Functionality is expanding at a similar pace; in 2016 alone, Amazon went from a modest 130 Alexa Skills to over 5,000 by year-end. Every major brand in technology seems to have a stake in voice-first technology, which begs the question: what can we expect to see next?

By the end of 2017, Amazon devices occupy 70.6% of U.S. user share of voice-enabled speakers, and have emerged as the industry leader—at least, for now. How does Amazon plan to stay on top? By thinking beyond the device. Initially, Alexa was an experiment, placed inside the first Echo device in 2014 with little expectation. But as Alexa’s popularity grew, so did Amazon’s ambitions, and soon they envisioned a “voice-first computing platform that worked everywhere, all the time, no matter what you were doing”. Amazon can’t make devices to please everyone (and they don’t want to!) Instead, their primary focus is Alexa Voice Services, a new division dedicated to building hardware and software that makes it easy to add Alexa to—well, anything you interact with. As Priya Abani­­­, Amazon’s Director of AVS Enablement explains, "you should be able to talk to Alexa no matter where you're located or what device you're talking to.”

Google is currently in second place in U.S. user share, with a modest 23.8%, and the remaining contenders—notably, Apple and Microsoft—only comprise 5.6% of the remaining share. Being the global leader in search, Google has a clear competitive advantage in the voice-first market. Just this week at CES 2018, Google announced the summer release of Google Assistant speakers with something new: a touchscreen. Though Amazon has already released the Echo Spot and Show, which both include smart displays, Google has more experience with touchscreen interfaces than Amazon, which undoubtedly gives them an edge. Google is also taking steps to simplify its voice commands, or “Actions,” by adding a directory to help users navigate the over 1 million possible Actions available on Assistant.

Of course, without adequate advancement in processor efficiency and bandwidth accessibility, not to mention readily available and affordable electronics, none of this would be possible. Technologically, at least, we are ready for a voice-enabled world. However, it seems the average consumer has some concerns—privacy being chief among them. By nature, voice-first devices are always listening, and anyone with access to an account could listen in remotely. Not to mention, the range of activities smart home devices can execute, and the personal data required to do so, makes users vulnerable to intruders. It’s important to note that voice data is only sent to back-end servers when the “wake-up” word or phrase—“Alexa”, or “OK, Google” as two default examples—has been heard.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been controversy around devices recording unwanted data; one journalist discovered his Google Home Mini was recording audio 24/7, even when he hadn’t said the wake-up word. The potential for law enforcement to tap into voice-first devices to access recordings is another no brainer—except that Amazon has already set a precedent for staying true to user privacy agreements, as was demonstrated during a 2016 murder investigation. With all emerging technology, user education is vital. All voice-first devices currently on the market give users the option to listen to previous recordings and delete if needed. And as with any connected device, users need to protect their accounts with strong passwords and two-factor authentication where possible.

Amazon’s vision of a world where “Alexa is everywhere” will be here sooner than many of us would have expected. From home appliances and electronics, to motorized and non-motorized transportation, to wearables like clothes, shoes, and jewelry—the future is voice-first. It’s been said that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and with voice-first technology, that rings truer than ever. Our consumer responsibility now is to educate ourselves and be aware that—more than likely—there is always a device listening nearby.

Want to learn more about voice-first technology for your brand? Contact SPLICE at 1-855-777-5423.