Soon it will seem almost quaint there was a time we looked at voice assistants as virtual friends who lived in our pockets and answered our questions.
After all, in a few short years, voice-enabled assistants like Alexa, Siri and Cortana have far surpassed the skillset of any real-life human assistant. And that likely means this is the point for an obligatory reference to Samantha in Her or Jarvis in Iron Man.
And that’s because voice technology really does have the potential to change everything.
Case in point: Because voice assistants can help consumers function in hands- and even eyes-free scenarios, a good early example of their potential is in an application like cooking, said Joe Migliozzi, managing director and global lead at Shop+, which is the dedicated retail and ecommerce arm of media and marketing services firm Mindshare.
“As these devices become a part of everyone’s kitchen, they can become a third hand, telling consumers recipes, reminding them when to stir the dish and explaining potential wine pairings for the meal,” he said. “This will be a big opportunity for food brands.”
And, according to Christina Ottomanelli, associate media director at marketing agency MMI Agency, voice-activated to-do and grocery lists are also becoming popular. Which, in theory, means someday even the wallets and purses of the more old-fashioned among us won’t be littered with scraps of paper.
“I imagine that data is collected from these to-do lists and will eventually lead to brands having the opportunity to promote their products [and] services based on a user’s needs,” she added. “Currently on Alexa, users are able to set reminders to restock essentials. I imagine that in the future, in conjunction with Amazon Dash, brands will have the ability to take the lead and set purchase reminders proactively on behalf of users.”
But it’s not just about food. Another advantage is that voice assistants can recognize different consumers and adjust their responses accordingly, which provides a more personalized experience for each user.
Purna Virji, senior manager of PPC training at Microsoft and a staunch voice advocate, used the example of asking for recommendations for a good book.
“It will show me, my husband and my son different recommendations if we talk to the voice assistant,” she said.
And while this certainly provides a good user experience for all, it’s really the tip of the iceberg in terms of how voice assistants will impact consumers’ lives going forward. To wit:
No more wallets
According to Chuck Fletcher, technology director of emerging experiences at interactive agency Razorfish, voice has proven to be an effective biometric identifier as secure as a fingerprint.
“A voice print can be securely kept on file and matched, allowing you to pay for items via your voice,” he said. “In fact, Google released an app earlier this year called Hands Free that lets users buy items in a few local stores in the San Francisco area with only the app and your voice.”
And that means George Costanza’s wallet is even closer to becoming a relic of a bygone era.
What’s more, Valerie Lisyansky, partner at product studio Swarm, said we may soon reach a point when we can simply command, “Pay bills,” and never have to waste any more time than that on creditors ever again.
“If we can speak and tell an intelligent system what we want, it can execute in the background without the need for consumers to get off the couch,” she added.
And, according to Tom Anthony, head of research and development at digital marketing agency Distilled, another bad omen for wallets is projects like Google Zensei, which he discussed at the Search Leeds conference earlier this year, and in which Google wants to be able to identify users simply by touch.
No more screens
But that’s not all. Voice assistants may also prompt the disappearance of screens as we know them as consumers ask their devices questions and receive verbal answers when, say, they are driving.
David Lau, vice president and head of paid search and programmatic media at digital marketing agency iCrossing, pointed to Alexa.
“The fact that it’s screenless – and Amazon’s most successful product – goes to show there is something to be said about having a virtual assistant on standby that you can activate by talking into the air,” he said.
Similarly, Lisyansky noted existing payment integrations in voice-enabled devices foreshadow a future in which consumers aren’t “limited by tactical user interfaces” and can do what they want with voice commands.
“I.e., I want something, I ask for it. I want an Uber…I just say it out loud. Swap Uber for any service or delivery you can imagine, like turning the heat up, the lights off, the music on,” she said. “Voice assistants have become their own interface — one that relies on carefully crafted commands rather than touch. Why should I hit a light switch, or even tap an icon on my phone, when I can easily say, ‘Lights, on’?”
Fletcher agreed voice technology gives consumers the freedom to simply speak what they want.
“Eventually, this feature might be built into our homes with all rooms being voice-enabled by default – to a point where we don’t even know where the microphones are,” he added.
Migliozzi agreed voice assistants will play a much larger role within connected homes as voice starts connecting all the lighting in the house, as well as cars in the driveway, security systems and entertainment devices.
“The big play will be ease of use – think about how great it’ll be to start your car in the driveway just by asking your in-home voice device to do it,” he said. Which is great news for those in locations with cold winters, but might not bode as well for nearby auto-start installation businesses.
Tony Briceno, head of mobile technology at digital agency Carrot Creative, however, said this bright future depends on as-of-yet-unmade advancements in machine learning, artificial and virtual intelligence and organic sensors – and it’s only then that voice will become an interface for everything. Indeed, hurdles remain for voice.
“One day we could all have personal AI assistants just like Tony Stark’s,” he said. “The voice assistant is an input just like a key on a keyboard, a tap on your phone or a dial on the radio.”
No more funnel
Amazon Prime customers that have a one-click payment method can already order physical products via Alexa and this may be a sign of further changes to the good ol’ purchase funnel.
In fact, Anthony said he is seeing a trend toward the collapse of the funnel altogether with voice search. In other words, consumers can search, browse and make purchases within the same interface, which changes the game for brands, marketers, retailers and platforms entirely.
“Currently you can already [search and browse], but you need an app for the checkout,” he said. “However, soon you'll check out in that same interface [with] no web involved and voice as the interface throughout.”
Indeed, Marley Kaplan, head of innovation at advertising firm Kinetic Worldwide, noted technology is moving toward more seamless interactions such as this.
“In the case of the Amazon Dash Button's integration with Tide detergent, the user could order a fresh supply of Tide through Amazon with the push of a button. The next progression we've seen is voice-activated commerce through Amazon's Alexa product,” she said. “Take this a step further, and your car will remind you to pick up Tide on your drive home from work through a Waze integration as you near the local store for those emergency washes. As voice-activated queries become more nascent across smart devices, users will expect actionable services as the output."
No more search box
Voice assistants may also spur the death of the search box as we know it simply because it’s easier to verbalize queries than type them in many cases. And that means search engines cannot rest on their laurels as a consumer destination forever.
Instead, customers will access whatever apps or assistants most easily enable them to accomplish a given task, such as using the Zappos app to look for shoes rather than typing a shoe query into Google.
In a recent Bing Q&A, internet marketing consultant and SEO Ammon Johns noted the future of search could be less about links and more about providing information and empowering consumers to do things, which is driven, in part, by digital assistants. And that could mean that we’ll someday lose the search engine as a destination because information is on tap wherever we go.
Better quality of life for the elderly and disabled
And on the more feel-good than commercial end of the spectrum, voice assistants could also make life easier for the elderly and disabled who are no longer tethered to expensive voice tools with limited functionality.
“Voice assistants like Echo and devices like Android and Apple phones with built-in functionality have provided amazing leaps forward for people with impaired sight or mobility, as well as those with limited use of their hands,” Fletcher said.
Further, he said voice assistants are just the beginning as devices that incorporate artificial intelligence are getting smarter and becoming more easily accessible.
“The HoloLens, for example, will continue to become more affordable and widely available,” he said. “Voice can be a powerful tool in helping the sight impaired ‘hear’ what is around them with sound feedback — like dolphins or bats — and smart cameras that allow voice assistants to vocalize what is being seen.”
But beyond just enhancing quality of life, a voice assistant could also be deployed by an elderly or disabled person who needs to contact emergency services, Lisyansky said.
“A user [wouldn’t] need to pick up a phone and dial 911, but instead could say a code phrase to summon help, similar in function and use to the old Life Alert pendants, ‘I've fallen and I can't get up,’” she said.
For her part, Harriet Pea, designer at ForgetMeNots Design, which specializes in products and services for seniors and patients with dementia, said she has been testing Siri and Alexa and noted the technology holds promise, but needs work.
“I believe voice technology will develop into a key tool in our industry to deliver products that support independence and significantly reduce caregiver workload,” she said. “All of which becomes critical as we are moving to the largest aging population in history at the same time we are experiencing a severe shortage of caregivers.”
In fact, Pea said voice technology is being paired with dementia service dogs in research projects that seek to allow the dog to serve as the voice that triggers alert systems or contacts family, caregivers or 911 with specific barks. This, in turn, has the potential to allow patients with dementia to stay at home without 24-hour care and/or to confidently go out into the world and continue to live their lives.