Voice-Assisted Retail Amps Up As Holidays Loom


As the all-important 2019 holiday shopping season looms for merchants, the area of voice is becoming hotter and more sophisticated, foreshadowing a trend that will almost certainly have retail significance in the fourth quarter.

Consider Google.

Since Google launched its smart speaker artificial intelligence (AI)-backed voice assistant product Google Home in November 2016, the race for voice ecosystem dominance has been relatively consistent for the last three or so years. Amazon – which had a head start of almost exactly two years with its Echo/Alexa line – has been the leader in the market, with Google running as fast as possible in second place trying to catch up.

On the whole, it hasn’t been a close race. Though there have been occasions when it seemed Google might have some chance of pulling ahead, Amazon’s lead has remained fairly commanding and complete. As of early 2019, Alexa had 56,750 skills on offer in the U.S. market, compared to 4,253 Google Assistant Actions. As of the start of summer 2019, Amazon also led Google in placing its voice-activated assistant in far more third-party devices. Alexa is found in more than 60,000 smart home devices from 7,400 companies, whereas Google Assistant is found on about 10,000 devices from more than 1,000 companies.

However, if Google has been somewhat slow to make any significant strides at taking pole position in this race, it has held onto second place pretty consistently – and not for lack of serious challengers. Granted, Samsung’s Bixby was differently focused, and Apple’s HomePod/Siri combination has suffered from execution issues since it was announced, both of which made it easier for Google to remain Amazon’s main competition.

Google Gains

Even so, it seems the equilibrium in the field has been disrupted, as new data from Canalys indicates. Google is no longer holding the No. 2 spot – the silver medal in the voice speaker/assistant race is now China’s Baidu, while Google has slipped to No. 3.

Amazon still holds the top spot in the race, with 6.6 million units shipped during Q2 2019. But Baidu surged into second during that time, selling 4.5 million units and edging out Google’s 4.3 million. That growth, year on year, is on the order of 3,700 percent for Baidu.

Emotions Trend

As the holidays loom, voice-assisted retail is also getting more emotional – a trend that seems likely to play out in the longer term in the 2020s.

Amazon is reportedly developing a wearable device that will be activated by voice to recognize human emotions. The effort is a collaboration between the Alexa voice software team and Lab126, which is the group behind the Echo smart speaker as well as Amazon’s Fire Phone.

The device, which works with a mobile app, is said to have microphones that can detect a wearer’s emotional state based on his or her voice. The technology could potentially direct users on how to better interact with others. However, the report noted that the project status is not known, and it is uncertain whether it “will ever become a commercial device.” The company is said to give wide latitude to teams to experiment with products, some of which never go to market.

The project is reportedly code-named “Dylan,” as the team works toward a program for beta testing. It is not known whether the test encompasses software that detects emotion, the prototype hardware or both concepts.

While the creation of machines that can discern emotions has been part of science fiction for a long time, the concept is moving closer to fruition with innovations in voice, image recognition and machine learning.

We can count on even more development for voice-assisted retail in the coming months.