Voice Activation

The Big Voice Showdown In Vegas

The Big Voice Showdown in Vegas

The floor of CES was once again flooded with smart devices, created to make everything from personal grooming to household management to the daily commute a smoother and more seamless experience for consumers through the power of connection.

The customer, after all, is always right – and as it turns out, consumers are getting comfortable with digital guide voices faster than most observers ever expected. As of early 2019, some 28 percent of consumers own a voice-activated device, up from 14 percent last year, according to the PYMNTS/Visa figures. The lucrative “bridge millennial” consumer segment — relatively high-earning and highly educated, and approaching their peak earning years — are particularly fond of this technology, with 31 percent reporting ownership of a voice-activated device and 55 percent of those owners using them to make a purchase.

And those hockey-sticking growth figures have increasingly meant that the title bout in the world of smart, voice-controlled devices will go to the firm that can bring all of these smart offerings into a coherently navigable and connected voice ecosystem that goes easily with consumers throughout their day.

As of early 2019, Amazon and Google are the two main competitors for that crown, and they are not quite equally matched insofar as Amazon’s market share is greater. Still, with 100 million devices hosting Alexa – and soon, Google says, over a billion hosting the Google Assistant (that Android ecosystem is a real boon to inflating Google’s device count) – the race remains competitive, particularly at CES this year, as each brand was seemingly everywhere touting their latest and greatest in advances and expanded partnerships.

And, of course, Alexa and Google weren’t the only players to take the stage.

Amazon’s Extensive Offerings

Amazon, when compared to Google, took a somewhat lower-key approach at CES 2019 – but, according to most reviews, Amazon and its smart assistant Alexa were “omnipresent at the show” nonetheless, featuring prominently into partners’ booths and stage presentations. There were also, reportedly, no shortage of “Works with Alexa” dotting a wide universe of products all over the floor.

Among the highlights were Alexa’s smart TV expansion – particularly into models made by LG and Samsung. The integration with Samsung was a bit of a head turner, given that the South Korean electronics firm has been a holdout when it comes to offering Alexa or Google Assistant on its TVs, since it has its own assistant, Bixby. But Samsung says the 2019 TV lineup can recognize simple commands from Alexa or Google Assistant, though there is a small hitch included with that. To make it work, one will need a device (an Amazon Echo, for example) to pair with the TV. No device, no Alexa. Bixby comes built in.

Alexa also made a strong showing among several smart home security products. Favorites among the crowd were the Lockly’s Secure Pro smart lock, which offers five ways to unlock it, one of which is a voice assistant command. Amazon’s Ring video doorbell system has also seen its Alexa integration upgraded (among other improvements). The new Ring Door View Cam – an all-in-one meant to replace the peephole, among other things – is Alexa-enabled and can send alerts when it detects motion.

Alexa made several advances in the interior of the home, particularly in the consumer’s bathroom. Moen displayed updates to its smart shower system that both added improved Alexa functionality and support for routines. That means upon arising and getting their morning routines running, customers will now be able to start their shower at a preset temperature.

And if that’s not futuristic enough, Kohler built an entire smart bathroom for CES integrated with Alexa, from the lights to the mirror to the toilet. Yes, you read that last one right. The Numi 2.0 Intelligent Toilet retails for $7,000 and reportedly responds to voice commands. It also offers a “fully-immersive experience,” according to its advertising materials, which sounds less desirable in a toilet than in other consumer goods.

Alexa’s biggest leap forward demonstrated at CES, however, was probably into connected cars, as the world got its first up-close view of the workings of the Echo Auto. First introduced last September at Amazon’s device event, the Echo device for cars is now on sale and available – to a selected few, anyway.

According to reports, the Echo Auto started shipping a few weeks ago to a “small” group of customers, who also got it at the sale price of $24.99. The Alexa Auto will be on sale to the general public later in 2019 for $49.99. The device pairs with a user’s phone and allows them to interact with Alexa through a car’s infotainment system. It is additionally compatible with third-party apps like Google Maps and music options like Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM and NPR, with apps like Apple Maps and Apple Music expected to be coming soon.

And while Amazon’s technology and partnerships were well-reviewed this year – and there was near-universal agreement that Alexa remains the dominant force in the AI-assisted voice market – there was also a consensus that at CES, at least, Google won the week.

Google Goes Big

While everyone agrees Google went big with its marketing efforts at the 2018 CES in an attempt to push their emerging Google Assistant and related slew of products into the public consciousness, it seems there is also emerging agreement that in 2019, Google somehow found a way to go bigger. “Hello Google” signs were apparently on display on every imaginable surface at the convention in surrounding areas. Their booth at the show was roughly the size of a city block and contained an amusement park-esque ride described as “It’s a Small World, if It’s a Small World was about sharing the various wonders of the Google Assistant.”

And even if one didn’t ride the ride, Google also reportedly had several human “Google Assistants” dressed in white on the floor at CES to answer questions and generally raise awareness.

Google also had plenty of announcements and partnerships to back-up its technicolor assault on the CES.

They rolled out a new interpreter mode for the Google Assistant that allows it to translate conversations for users in real time. It works when a user says “Hey Google, I need an X interpreter” (X being the language one needs translated). After the command, the user hears a beep and is instructed to speak their sentence. After another beep, the software will say the sentence in the requested translation language. The tool works in 27 languages, including Spanish, Czech, Hindi and Vietnamese.

“It’s very futuristic,” said Manuel Bronstein, vice president of product for the Assistant. “Our core focus is to make a product that can understand everything you say, can hear you, can convert those intents into actions and help you fulfill them.”

The company also rolled out a new partnership with the likes of Lenovo on a new smart clock that looks (and acts) a bit like a square version of the Echo Spot. There was also a highly reviewed smart display by KitchenAid, which was praised for easy operability while cooking and for an easy interaction with the Google Assistant.

And though Google does not have a car-centric version of its Home devices to get the Google Assistant on the road, it does look like it will be able to hitchhike into cars with the JBL Link Drive and Anker Roav Bolt devices. Both plug into a car’s cigarette lighter to charge, and they output audio to the car’s stereo using Bluetooth. Once linked up, both devices reportedly give drivers access to Google Assistant’s full functionality while on the road.

And the Winner Is…

While most commentators agree that Google “won” CES simply by the nature of their over-the-top and very histrionic presentation, the smart speaker race itself is a more clouded picture.

Apple and Samsung, for example, both made appearances this year at CES, though perhaps less extensive ones.

Apple announced it will open access to its AirPlay and HomeKit technology to LG and Vizio. CES also ended up with Sony, LG, GE, Vizio, Belkin, Arlo, IKEA and TP-Link all rolling out either products or updates featuring HomeKit integration. There was, however, a wide consensus that Siri has “get a whole lot better” before Apple has any chance of coming to play in the smart technology race that is heating up.

Samsung was also avidly pushing Bixby, and its powers as a virtual assistant designed to help customers navigate their Samsung devices – but out of all of the announcements Samsung made at CES, Bixby got the least airplay.

Which means coming out of CES, the smart assistant race is still very much where it was at the beginning of CES – still largely between Amazon and Google, with Amazon running notably ahead.

But voice is a race that Google undoubtedly does not want to lose. And its investments in marketing, devices and ecosystem partnerships underscore that.

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