To say that voice technology is having its moment in the global pandemic’s aftermath isn’t quite accurate.
The sector has actually been having its moment for much of the past decade in terms of adoption among consumers and exponentially growing interest among companies that want to connect with them.
But Todd Mozer, CEO and chairman of voice technology firm Sensory, told Karen Webster recently that the sector is enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime moment in terms of its potential for expansion. After all, we’re suddenly in a world where touchless systems have become a key focus for consumers who want to safely get back out into the world after some three months of coronavirus-related sheltering place.
“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,” Mozer said, noting that fingerprint scanning on any kind of publicly used device has become unappealing to consumers.
At the same time, voice technology has enjoyed a recent spurt of growth thanks to a “comfortability of using voice” that has developed among consumers over the past decade or so, the expert said. Thanks to voice-activated systems like Alexa, Google and Siri, the average consumer has gotten pretty used to conversing with an artificial intelligence (AI) system, while the AI systems have gotten a lot better at conversing with them.
Mozer noted that a decade ago, voice-activated commands required using very specific grammar when addressing a machine. By contrast, “today we can recognize 10,000 different commands,” he said. “You can say things any way you want to the machine, and as long as it is in [your] native language, it will probably work.”
The only question now is how to make voice technology work more widely and in ways directly correlated to consumer needs, Mozer said. He said he believes that will involve a future where voice assistants are purpose-built for their tasks at hand, while bio-authentication technology is never about looking for a single solution, but about building up layers of verification.
Using Voice Technology for More Than Alexa Or Siri
Among the changes Sensory has seen over the pandemic’s course has been expanded interest in using voice technology outside of its normal core of consumer electronics. For example, Mozer said attention has expanded to include companies like quick-service restaurants (QSRs), where penetration had been relatively light.
He said QSRs aren’t necessarily going to be replacing their touchscreen kiosks with voice-activated tech tomorrow. After all, the pandemic’s economic impacts have pushed a lot of businesses to curtail tech spending as they attempt to offset some of their revenue losses.
But Mozer said voice technology is on the verge of gaining footholds in the market that it’s never had before. However, he added that the field has some serious work to do building standardization across the industry and perfecting voice authentication.
COVID-19 has created an urgent need for voice authentication because both fingerprint and facial biometrics have run into issues. He noted that fingerprint tech by its nature requires touching a screen, which consumers are looking to avoid on anything but their own personal devices.
Similarly, facial recognition doesn’t work when consumers are wearing masks, which much of the public will be doing for some time. By contrast, voice recognition is unaffected by the pandemic’s unique challenges, Mozer said.
Still, he admitted that the technology has other hurdles that it needs to clear.
“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.”
Mozer said he doesn’t believe voice will entirely replace either fingerprint- or face-based biometrics, as different environments will require different things. But he said the more biometrics that can be layered in, the more accurate the result becomes without affecting user convenience all that much.
Industry Needs To Set One Standard
However, Mozer said the industry must still come up with one set of operating standards. Amazon is currently spearheading the initiative to prevent each player from building its own standard that doesn’t work with anyone else’s.
Mozer said Sensory has signed on to Amazon’s initiative because interoperability between systems is critical. He said he believes all voice technology products must easily interact with the likes of Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant in the future.
However, he noted that the biggest players in the game must all agree, which so far hasn’t happened.
“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 here in the states and internationally,” 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.”
Your Microwave Doesn’t Need To Connect To Wikipedia
Despite being a longtime voice technologist and enthusiast, Mozer said he doesn’t believe consumers will stop interacting with their phones by touch. After all, there’s a lot of utility built into swiping.
He said he doesn’t expect voice technology to replace what we do now, but to expand into more areas. To do that, Sensory believes in building device-specific embedded assistants to help consumers use voice to navigate their lives as opposed to attempting to embed general services like Alexa or Siri into everything.
“A lot of times, a device-centric interface is what our customers want,” Mozer said. “How many devices do you need that can tell you what time it is in Beijing? Do I really need my microwave and my oven and everything else to be able to tell me these things and play Jeopardy with me, or do I just need it to cook my food?”
He said that if you tell your microwave to reheat some chicken for two minutes, you won’t be happy if it reads you a Wikipedia article about chicken farming. Voice-enabled devices’ ability to do what consumers want is going to be crucial.
“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,” Mozer said. “Going forward, I think the focus in voice is going to be around doing what the consumer specifically wants to do instead of trying to be everything to everybody.”