2017: The year of the voice interface

July 3rd, 2017

We are approaching the half way point of 2017. How did the tech trends forecasts, from the likes of Forbes, Gartner and myriad others, fare?

Much of the commentary at the start of the year was about the Internet of Things (IoT) and AR/VR, with perhaps AR and VR gaining the lion’s share of pundits’ screen space. While the AR/VR sector has indeed probably made more inroads, it is the IoT that has made the loudest noise this year, with Amazon Echo moving into the mainstream, Google Home being launched earlier this year and Apple’s HomePod just announced.

In fact, you could go so far as to say that AR/VR is in danger of being leapfrogged as the next great interface for all things digital. Sure, they’ll be amazing for gamers – and I’ll be in the queue for a Hololens (or, rather, my Minecraft-mad son will) – but those headsets have a long way to go before they are ready to be adopted by the mainstream public (remember Google Glass?).

With SIRI and Cortana having paved the way by letting tech users get comfortable talking to their devices, the next generation of voice-enabled services is likely to provide the biggest revolution in computer interfaces since the touchscreen took over our smartphones.

We are approaching the moment when the IoT is becoming relevant to the everyday consumer, rather than serving as an interesting novelty. Or, maybe more realistically, it’s no longer received with blank stares of incomprehension. A step forward nevertheless. The prevalence of connected devices such as NEST, music players like SONOS, smart TVs and home monitoring kits means that the IoT is slowly becoming a reality for all of us and, as the IoT becomes more and more embedded in our homes, the voice interface will inevitably become the most natural way to take control.

The big tech companies – all of whom have patchy records of extra-curricular activities and occasionally abortive moves into new hardware – have recognised that control (interface and OS) is the place to be. Hence, the rumours that Apple won’t actually build a car, but merely provide the interface and control, may have some weight behind them. Similarly, it never made the move into TV manufacturing, despite Steve Jobs’ yet-to-be-realised assertion that he’d cracked the medium.

The possibilities of audio interfaces are such that we’ll see an incredible diversity of new tech in this area, not least from those offering virtual assistants or avatars (and, as a side-note, surely Facebook’s chatbots and Quartz’s conversational interface will be left in the slipstream here) such as Skype’s initiative.

And with the new control systems, services and hardware, inevitably, will come the need for content. Amazon’s Skills SDK is already available to use for all-comers to develop voice interfaces for third party material, as is Actions for Google Home.

But what does this mean for publishers – whether of branded content or otherwise?

We should look out for innovators such as the BBC to see how they handle voice interface. Some intriguing possibilities open up at the nexus of audio-visual content, AI and the randomness of human interaction: it’s one thing to say, “Alexa, play last night’s episode of EastEnders”, but – as with search – a long-tail of conversational commands will quickly evolve from demanding users, “Play me that bit from EasterEnders where Kat and Alfie argue”. [Sorry, I’ve not watched it for a while].

Content creators with an eye on the (near) future should consider how their output could be repurposed for audio and then potentially broken down into playable audio chunks – and video too. Don’t forget that your IOT assistant will still be able to send video to whichever screen you prefer.

While all forms of content could be suited to the home voice interfaces, it seems to me that short form or structured content (traffic news, weather, train times, football scores and answers to the random questions from your kids) may well be a particularly strong suit for content providers – the audio equivalent of an Instagram post or Google Knowledge Graph card.

There is a drawback to the voice interface, of course.

As you query your virtual assistant about the next show times for Guardians of the Galaxy 2 while pottering around at home, you are prey to that most fallible of storage media – the human memory.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to revive that late, lamented early pioneer of the IoT – Little Printer?

Robin Barnes, Digital Director, Cedar

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