From a playing field that was nearly empty five years, the world of voice-activated personal assistants has filled up and rounded out rapidly on a global scale in the last half-decade. Apple, Google, Amazon, Alibaba, Xiaomi and Samsung make up a short list of the bigger names already in the race.
It seems a new competitor — care of Sony — is suiting up, and theoretically set to be released in tandem with its next flagship gaming system, the PlayStation 5 (PS5). "Theoretically" is the operative word, as Sony has made no official announcement in this regard.
However, eagle-eyed IP watchers noted that the global tech firm has recently been approved for a new patent that seems to describe and outline the uses of an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered voice assistant, designed to aid, enhance and perhaps more efficiently monetize a video gameplay. That patent follows a September 2019 patent of an AI voice assistant by Sony, then a later announcement of a new company-wide AI initiative to expand and infuse the technology across its offerings.
The three main areas Sony is targeting first? That would be culinary arts, sensors and gaming. Sony’s next flagship gaming system release — the PS5 — is due later this year. Add it all together, and the speculation is running high that Sony's new voice assistant will be the next big voice release and entrant into the race.
So, what are its odds as a competitor? At this point, given the lack of hard data on the subject, it is impossible to evaluate directly. Yet, it still makes for an interesting possibility to consider.
The Gaming Voice Assistant
What exactly Sony’s virtual assistant might look like — on the assumption that there will be anything at which to look at all — is sketchy, as it is largely derived from the patent filing. The new AI voice assistant was created to be an “in-game resource surfacing platform,” as the “patent lays out how a language processing system will determine the goal in a game and point out solutions.”
In simpler terms, the assistant is there to help the player when they get stuck in the game, with help available in many forms. The AI learns techniques and strategies by crowdsourcing and analyzing play data across the PlayStation platform, then offers its conclusions to the player in the form of advice on what they should do.
The monetization opportunity there is that the advice can come in many forms. The AI might suggest strategy, but it might suggest a list of items to acquire through gameplay or via purchase in the online store. The voice assistant, according to the patent data, is also equipped to facilitate transactions “seamlessly during gameplay.”
“Often, there may be an in-game resource of the game environment that could aid the user in accomplishing the objective with the character,” the patent application said. “The in-game resource may be downloadable content (DLC), add-ons, upgrades, items, tips, strategy, communal data, etc.”
Sony’s voice assistant, it seems, is designed to help players both play and shop easily while doing so. There are also some reads of the patent by somewhat angry bloggers (more on that in a second), who seem to believe that the voice assistant will be a micro-transaction, and that users will have to pay to talk to it. However, there are no indications of that directly within the text — or confirmation that the AI will exist at all, for that matter.
Given the statements made late last year, though, by Hiroaki Kitano, long-term Sony veteran and leader of the firm’s new AI initiative, it is a move that fits in with Sony’s reported goals.
Gaming As A Power-Up To Catch-Up
While Kitano is bullish on Sony’s AI future, he acknowledged that, in the recent past, the path of AI advancement has largely been driven by Silicon Valley-based firms like Apple, Google and Amazon, which have been part of the endeavor much longer.
“We decided now is a moment that we should really push,” he said at an industry event, noting that Sony’s three areas of focus in culinary arts, sensors and gaming all represented places of strength where the firm can find accessible in-roads.
Gaming is certainly a strength for Sony, which currently commands close to 100 million users of its last gaming system, the PlayStation 4, with well over 100 million users logged on to its connected gaming platform. Video gamers are a dedicated group — at the low end, a light gamer spends six hours a week logged in and playing, while moderate-to-heavy users tend to spend a little more than 20 hours a week at play, and heavy users have playtimes that can run into the triple digits.
If one were looking for a place to habituate a large consumer base to speaking and transacting with an artificial intelligence via voice, one could do much worse than a gaming platform. Given the tens of billions of dollars spent on gaming micro-transactions each year worldwide, one can safely assert that those gamers do like to shop while they play.
If they can get used to voice online while killing zombies and winning World War II, it might just translate into the real world, where a particularly ambitious Sony might be hoping to meet them — perhaps in the kitchen with a robot that understands natural language and cuts up carrots. It’s a novel way to think differently about connecting in the voice wars, if it is, in fact, what Sony is after.
At this point, it remains difficult to assess, since Sony remains tight-lipped about what — if anything — it is planning in this regard. Of course, for any of the above to be feasible, gamers must like a voice assistant by Sony, find it useful and want to use it more. None of those are certainties — if, for example, it is an assistant that one must pay to use, then gamers also habituated to conversing with Alexa or Siri for free could well take exception.
In-game transactions are often a touchy subject among gaming enthusiasts. Some strongly support expansion packs, skins and other paid experiences that enhance gameplay. Others, like the bloggers cited above, tend to cast a jaundiced eye on paying more in-game for something they have already paid $50 to play. They worry that the “assistant” won’t so much assist, but turn up as an annoying salesman during gameplay, slowing down the game to transact. If it does that, we can imagine it won’t catch on.
Yet, in a world where the voice assistant seems to be multiplying, it remains interesting to see potential new entrants — with interesting methods of angling into a crowded field from an unexpected angle.