Voice technology was already on the rise long before the global pandemic broke out, with a steadily increasing share of consumers using voice assistants like Siri or Alexa to shop, listen to music, find recipes and more.
But then COVID-19 hit, and like so many things connected to digital commerce, voice technology got a massive boost.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in the use of voice in the home,” Tom Taylor, senior vice president of Amazon’s Alexa unit, told GeekWire in a recent interview.
In fact, the latest edition of PYMNTS’ and Visa’s How We Will Pay survey found more than three in 10 consumers own voice assistants, compared to just 1.4 out of 10 in 2017.
And although consumers are still most likely to use those devices to do things like check the weather, play music or search out recipes, they’re increasingly pivoting toward using the systems for commerce.
Our latest survey observed a 25 percent increase in the portion of consumers making purchases via artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled speakers. Those doing so rose to 9.6 percent of all consumers as of late 2019 versus just 7.7 percent a year earlier.
Voice Technology 1, Touchscreens 0
Voice-activated assistants are also increasingly turning up outside the home as businesses worldwide view voice technology as a tool to reopen more safely in a post-pandemic world. The trend has started in the incredibly hard-hit travel business — particularly hotels that are trying to make customers feel more safe and secure.
Voice controls allow for less physical interaction with high-touch object in their rooms. Max Starkov, an instructor at New York University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality, told Bisnow that Marriot, Hilton, the Four Seasons and other chains are already integrating voice controls into guest rooms. And he said he expects adoption to skyrocket industrywide in the coming months.
“It won’t be long before you see AI-powered voice assistants in each hotel room, enabling utility controls, entertainment, communications with hotel staff and so on,” Starkov said. “Also, entertainment hubs will be able to sync the smart TV with guests' own streaming service accounts and voice assistant accounts.”
And as voice is increasingly checking into hotels, it’s also making a larger appearance in grocery shopping. For instance, Apple and Walmart announced a strategic partnership in late 2019 to help Siri become a consumer's personal grocery shopping assistant. Users can instruct Siri to add items to a shopping list and even commence a checkout.
While neither Apple nor Walmart have released any figures on usage yet, anecdotal reports suggest that as online grocery orders spiked during the pandemic, so did grocery-related requests to Siri.
Meanwhile, Google and French grocery chain Carrefour have expanded a 4-year-old partnership to bring the Google Assistant to the Carrefour mobile app, making voice-enabled grocery shopping possible for French consumers.
“This innovation, developed with Google, will further accelerate the trajectory of eCommerce at Carrefour,” Amelie Oudea-Castera, Carrefour’s executive director of eCommerce, data and digital transformation, said at the time.
A Golden Age For Voice Technology?
And the advances we’ve seen so far are just the beginning of what experts say could be a golden age for voice technology in the post-pandemic recovery. That could end up benefiting all sorts of voice technology, not just the voice assistants that we know and love from Apple, Google and Amazon.
Todd Mozer, CEO and chairman of voice-technology firm Sensory, also told Karen Webster in a conversation that in a world where touchless systems have become a key focus for consumers, voice technology will take on a whole new level of importance.
He said that since fingerprint scanning on publicly used devices has become unappealing to consumers, “I think people really realized that shared touch is gone or going, and I think that creates a ... new type of biometric that’s needed.”
But Mozer admitted that a full expansion won't happen overnight. After all, quick-service restaurants (QSRs) that just spent millions adding touchscreens aren’t going to chuck them for voice-enabled tech at the drop of a hat.
However, it does mean that there are few players left that aren’t at least thinking of how their operations can touch a voice-enabled ecosystem. Still, Mozer said wider adoption means the ecosystem has a lot of work to do to perfect voice authentication.
“We have to catch your elements of the voice that are consistent, whether a person has a cold or whether they’re 10 feet away or a few feet away,” he said. “And we put a lot of work into really understanding what we want to filter out and what we want to capture. And as it turns out, some of those parameters that we found that are unique in people’s voices [are] invariant.”
The Industry Needs Standardization
But even importantly, Mozer said the industry need standardization. That’s why Sensory signed on to Amazon’s initiative to create a single set of operating standards. He said one standard will help all of voice technology — both what exists today and what’s coming tomorrow — work interoperably.
“The biggest challenge … is that to really be successful, you need Google and you need Apple and you need Microsoft and you need Amazon to all do it together,” Mozer said. “... And they need Alibaba and the other big global assistant providers. [But] Google and Apple haven’t bought into it at this point.”
Still, buy-in now might soon be a bit more likely given that the European Union has launched an antitrust investigation into voice assistants, with a particular emphasis to how interoperable systems really are.
Mozer said that even as the industry moves toward interoperability, people are finding that purpose-built voice AI is better for some situations than more general players like Alexa. For example, consumers want to ask their microwave to heat their tea and not get an answer back about the history of Chinese tea ceremonies.
Mozer said efforts to clarify individual devices’ functions even as the industry creates interoperable tools is moving ahead mostly because it has to. In a world where touchless is the smart way to play, voice has an incredibly powerful inbuilt advantage, he said.
“People are used to talking to devices, and as the chips in them are getting more powerful and more capable at a lower price point, it’s all kind of coming together nicely,” he said.