Voice Activation

Voice-Activated Tracker: The Last Landline

This edition of Voice-Activated Tracker starts off with the news that we’ve been waiting for. Just a few weeks ago, Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced Chime: a calling and video messaging software also available as both a web and mobile application.

At the time, it seemed inevitable that Amazon would soon push further into the digital call space, expanding functionality into other products. Namely, Echo. It relies heavily on the voice, after all.

This year, Amazon could release an Alexa-powered device that will enable voice calls. The details are scarce, and the company has declined to comment. However, unnamed sources told Recode, among others, to expect an official announcement from the online retail giant within the next few months.

Users of the upcoming device — currently in the beta testing phase — will be able to use the device to hold conversations in a manner similar to an intercom system.

If true, this development could be big in a few ways. First, it adds a much-needed primary functionality to the Echo. As of now, there’s a relative dearth of features that bring users back on a regular basis. While the device is highly popular with consumers, Echo and its cousins don’t have the best retention record for the vast majority of their skill set. Communication features could be a huge step forward to drawing in coveted regular, repeat use from consumers.

Second, an IoT-enabled, voice-activated communication device could be the thing to finish what mobile, text and internet calling have started: bringing the home phone to extinction. It probably won’t be the end result of this first iteration of communication features. (Older tech has a way of hanging around, after all.) But it could certainly push landline use even farther down.

However, a few key questions about this new feature remain unanswered.

Aside from questions of privacy and security, it’s unclear as to whether this inter-device communication functionality will also include some sort of integration with existing smartphones. Will users be able to sync their contacts or place an Alexa to smartphone call? What about placing a call to Alexa or talk-to-text/text-to-Alexa functionality?

One thing that is clear, however, is that the voice-activated device market is projected to boom. Inter-device communications could only work to speed things up. The market success of one voice-activated smart speaker intercom will likely mean the speedy production of another. Then another.

Still, it will likely take a full suite of digital communication capabilities via voice-enabled device to snuff out the landline for good.

That full suite may not be far off. Amazon is building out text-to-speech and chatbot functionalities in another capacity.

AWS is reportedly working on a suite of tools to help companies manage their call centers. The tools will reportedly integrate Alexa, which will answer questions over the phone and via text message when combined with the abilities of chatbot Lex and text-to-speech program Polly.

Put together, the suite will enable businesses to customize their customer service programs via bots and voice control. The combined power of the bots and digital assistant mean that the suite of tools can learn and adapt to the industry for which it handles calls.

While Amazon has not announced an official plan as of yet, reworking these capabilities for the consumer device market seems like a logical next step to upgrade their smart speaker offerings.

Speaking of upgrades, while Alexa currently supports multiple user profiles and allows users to opt for PIN verification for purchases, Amazon is working on an additional user profile and security function that relies, naturally, on the voice.

Amazon is developing a way for Alexa to distinguish between individual voices, said Time. The “voice ID” feature has been in development since mid-2015 and will reportedly work by matching audio to a stored user voice sample.

Apart from simplifying user preference settings — think along the lines being able to pull up a personal Spotify playlist without having to specify whose, for example — voice ID could add an additional layer of security around payment, requiring a voice match in lieu of or on top of a PIN. Voice ID could also give Amazon’s Echo an edge over competitor device Google Home, though individual voice recognition is likely on the minds of every present voice-activated hardware developer.

Then again, a stored voice sample will also pose additional privacy and security concerns in a future where biometric verification is mainstream. Here, voice ID functionality is a double-edged sword. The voice is both an additional source of user authentication as well as an additional means for fraudsters to impersonate others should they somehow gain access to the audio file.

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