From carmakers to banks, how are modern businesses learning the language of voice tech?
From the automotive industry to healthcare to financial services, The Drum explores how voice technology is finding its way into every inch of our lives, sector by sector, and why you need to pay more than lip service.
Whether it’s ensuring that every V8 engine emits a hungry growl or harnessing pareidolia to give the headlights of a tarmac-hugging coupe a particularly menacing glare, automobile makers have been adding quirks of personality to their cars for decades. It’s only recently, however, that they’ve been able to give them a voice of their own.
Car makers are busily working on ways to integrate and expand the uses of voice assistants on the road, from handing over control of door locks and headlights to linking consumers’ increasingly-connected homes with their vehicles, allowing them to check the contents of their fridge or switch the bathroom light off from the comfort of the driver’s seat. By 2022, IHS Markit estimates nearly 90% of new cars will offer voice-recognition capability.
At this year’s CES, four of the world’s largest automobile brands revealed in-car voice assistant programs, with Ford and Volkswagen announcing the integration of Alexa into future vehicles while Nissan and BMW said they would soon offer rival Microsoft assistant Cortana in upcoming models. Hyundai, the first worldwide car maker to introduce Android systems into its cars, has been integrating Alexa with its Blue Link connected car app since 2016, allowing users to start their engines via voice command – perfect for commuters wanting to avoid scraping ice from their windshields on a frigid weekday morning.
According to Jan Schroll, the manager of multimedia, connectivity and electronic displays at Ford of Europe, voice technology could present a solution to one of the oldest problems confronting automobile designers – how to expand the number of features and applications available to drivers, without distracting them. “The purpose of the technology is to make driver experience more convenient, while also improving driver safety. Voice activation minimizes the amount of time drivers are looking away from the road and taking a hand off the wheel to touch a screen and change the radio,” he explains.
“In today’s constantly connected world, people expect to be able to remain connected even when driving, but those using a mobile phone behind the wheel are four times more likely to be involved in a car crash. Voice control continues to be a much safer solution, and one that is continuing to be developed and improved.”
Another opportunity lies in the combination of real-time location data and dynamic marketing – a marriage which could allow marketers to reach drivers in a space previously only accessible through passive media such as drivetime radio. With the ability to make purchases and decisions mid-journey, drivers could react to ads immediately, opening up an entirely fresh space and audience to marketers.
Volvo recently announced a partnership with Google that will allow its Sensus infotainment system – which already runs on software derived from Android – to incorporate Google Maps, Google Play Store and Google Assistant. Users will be able to customize their dashboard system with apps, providing new opportunities for developers and marketers with an eye on the specialized app market.
Meanwhile, Android Auto, the OS used in Hyundai models in the US, can be asked to plot new routes for drivers with voice commands, helping travelers find locations such as service stations at a moment’s notice.
The sheer intuitiveness of voice for consumers and shoppers has meant that many early adopter brands have been retail outlets and FMCG brands. Examples include Procter & Gamble’s range of Alexa skills, including a laundry advice app from Tide and a flu outbreak forecast app from NyQuil and DayQuil, to customers ordering Domino’s pizza deliveries with voice activation.
For some, the explosion in the popularity of voice-enabled devices represents a shift in the mindset of consumers. Robin Fry, a technical SEO consultant at search marketing consultancy Propellernet, explains: “There are more than 20m Alexa-enabled devices out there with the ability to buy items directly from Amazon using voice. As issues like accidental purchases are ironed out we’re likely to see increased willingness from consumers to buy products through voice search.”
If predictions about the future impact of voice upon consumer behavior are correct, then current investment by those brands will soon look like incredible foresight. John Gillan, who is managing director for northern Europe at commerce marketing specialists Criteo and the former head of retail for Google in Europe, told The Drum that voice could be a disruptor of commerce akin to mobile or search.
“This isn’t a fad – voice is here to stay. In the next few years voice will be the next great disruptor. It will disrupt how people are searching and finding products and it will also disrupt how people are shopping.”
A regular commuter, Gillan notes the success of Trainline’s voice activated app which allows commuters to order and search for train tickets with voice commands. “It knows that 70% of its business is on app or mobile, so when you’re looking for a train then that option of being able to speak and ask for times is very handy. That’s one application of voice that’s improving and making my life a lot easier.”
Gillan suggests that brands will find two main uses for voice – “selling more stuff” and “having a great customer experience”. The latter, he says, will eventually take precedence over the former and, while certain brands have made use of the streamlined purchasing voice enables, others will have to wait for the tech – and corresponding consumer habits – to develop further.
“It kind of lends itself better to low value, everyday items – groceries, entertainment, electrical items,” he says, before noting that brands may have more success flogging more expensive products – luxury fashion, lifestyle and high-end electronics – by tapping into voice’s capacity for enrichable customer experiences, either in-store or in the home. “I think that AI and voice will help transform customer service. It’s about having a personalized experience across every single channel – in-store, on a mobile phone, by speaking to your voice assistant.”
While Gillan notes that uses for voice in retail are still at a “very, very early stage”, he asserts that it will be transformative in years to come. “I think for our kids’ generations, voice will be the norm – it will just be how they engage with the world of today.”
Digital solutions for the healthcare sector, despite laudable aims and Hippocratic ideals, have often left service users ill at ease. But with technologists and healthcare providers working together to discover how voice can be leveraged for the promotion of good mental health and sound medical advice, it could be artificial intelligence that brings the bedside manner back into healthcare.
Examples of what the future could hold for voice in healthcare include chatbots such as the Woebot – a bot that checks in with users each day to provoke a casual conversation about their wellbeing, with the aim of promoting good mental health. But developers and marketers are already pushing at the boundaries of current technology to see how voice assistants and voice programs can improve the health of the public.
Rob Bennett, chief executive of creative tech company Rehab, says that voice can be “really useful” for healthcare. He notes that applications that treat voice as a service platform, rather than another sales channel, can take advantage of the technology’s inherent benefits.
In the UK, the NHS has been trialling Start4life, an Alexa Skill that provides new mothers with advice, tips and motivation on breastfeeding. Bennett says that Start4Life is a prime example of the potential of voice, because it allows mothers to circumvent anxieties and social judgments surrounding this sensitive topic. “I think the psychology behind it is very apt. It’s available 24/7, it’s hands-free, it’s intuitive and it’s helping support and overcome those fears and anxieties mums have, and I think that’s very applicable.”
Rehab, which won an Emmy for its work building Aeden, a chatbot promoting HBO hit Westworld, has recently embarked upon a partnership with the University of Nottingham’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, seeking to use voice to aid NHS flu vaccination programs. Acting on recent evidence which shows that elderly patients experiencing stress prior to their annual flu jab would respond less effectively to the vaccination, Rehab and the faculty are working on ways to boost the mood of the target demographic. “If we could get people happy before they get their vaccination, we could save the NHS a load of money,” Bennett explains.
The work on the partnership, he says, is just the start. “My instinct is that voice is going to play a major role because it is intuitive and convenient.
“And it doesn’t matter if you’re a 65-year-old hedge fund manager who’s super on-the-ball or whether you’re an 85-year-old who’s hard of hearing or hard of sight – it’s accessible to all and it can adapt to your need. That’s where I think, as a platform, voice is a very interesting space.”
Earlier this year 48 charities began accepting donations via Alexa, among them Unicef, Doctors Without Borders, Peta and the American Red Cross – a spokesperson for which tells The Drum that it’s “too early to tell whether we have seen a change in donations via this new system, but we are excited about future possibilities to make giving easier for our donors with this tool”.
It’s not the only one excited however. Steve Kehrli, who is vice-president of development at Peta US, explains that his charity has already been a longtime partner of Amazon Smile, which donates a small percentage of the profits from eligible purchases to shoppers’ selected charities.
He says he’s no stranger to the power of charitable giving through Amazon and is “pleased to be one of the first nonprofits to team up with the company’s virtual assistant in order to help animals, from elephants to dogs, on fur factory farms or the streets, in laboratories or circuses”.
The voice donation feature allows users to fund campaigns by saying, for example, ‘Alexa, donate to Peta,’ and giving anywhere from $5 to $5,000.
Online giving had already streamlined the donation process, and text message donations made things even easier when they came in around 2008. Voice donations remove any remaining barriers, or excuses.
“The charity opportunities are massive with voice,” says Doug Robinson, the chief exec of Fresh Digital Group which built Unicef’s voice app. “It gives them a way to close the gap digitally, explain what their purpose is to a wider audience, check off their KPIs, raise money and develop innovative projects that can create loyalists or easy press.”
Robison says marketers across the board need to be taking voice seriously as it will “sit at the center of their customer experience strategy before they know it”.
Alexa isn’t the only one supporting voice donations. Comic Relief teamed up with Apple last year to allow users to donate via Siri using their Apple Pay accounts and bypassing the need for form-filling. It is a simplicity we already expect from shopping, so its presence in the charity sector makes a lot of sense.
Beyond accepting donations however, other charities have been making their own innovative use of Alexa skills. The British Red Cross, for example, has an app that will tell you how to treat a seizure or stem severe bleeding – all available offline and bypassing the need to filter through less-trusted sources on Google, which comes in handy in an emergency.
Meanwhile, Versus Arthritis (formerly Arthritis Research UK) has plans to launch a voice app leveraging IBM Watson's cognitive voice input/output to provide a hands-free solution to sufferers looking for support and information about their condition.
Lend me your ears
Smart speakers continue to be the world’s fastest-growing consumer technology segment according to tech market analysts Canalys, with year-on-year growth in Q1 2018 of 210%. And as voice recognition continues to stake its spot in our homes, it’s inevitable that more and more parts of our lives will make use of it – and banking is no exception.
The demise of face-to-face, bricks-and-mortar, city-center banking was much bemoaned, but we all got used to telephone banking and then internet banking fairly fast, and in the UK last year customers logged into banking mobile apps 5.5bn times according to trade association UK Finance – an average of 275 times each per mobile banking customer.
The idea then that we’ll be similarly quick to adopt the next banking tech advancement seems extremely plausible. Indeed, research company Javelin found that more than half of all consumers are interested in leveraging their connected speakers for checking balances (47%) and reviewing recent transaction (43%).
Michelle Moore, who heads up Bank of America’s digital banking, meanwhile tells The Drum: “We’re quickly entering a voice generation, as an estimated 60 million people already talk to inanimate objects every single day in their house.”
It is why the bank, like several others in the US and further afield, has developed its own AI personal assistant, imaginatively called Erica, which allows users to schedule payments, transfer funds between accounts and send money to friends – all with just their voice. Moore explains that it is set to be “a true financial advocate for Bank of America’s 25 million mobile customers, anticipating their needs and helping them reach their financial goals on their terms”.
In the UK, online-only challenger bank Starling has been experimenting with what it can do with Google Home, as has OCBC in Singapore, whose customers can use a smartphone or Google Home to discuss retirement plans, calculate mortgage repayments and find their closest ATM.
Voice banking might not replace mobile banking completely as it’s unlikely many of us would be comfortable begging for an overdraft extension while on the bus to work, but it will certainly play a complimentary role in the future of money.
Out of the mouths of babes
There’s a statistic that’s rolled out pretty much every time that a new technological advancement whips us up into a frenzy – how 65% of children entering school today will end up working in jobs that don’t yet exist. It’s a stat that quickly crumbles under scrutiny, and its origins are much debated, but the fact it is so often so easily accepted hints at how acutely aware we all are of the challenge that is blindly preparing kids for a future workplace we can’t possibly imagine.
And much like classrooms today, with their smartboards and tablets, are virtually unrecognizable to those of us who grew up with blackboards and chalk, schools are again retooling – this time with voice-command devices.
The idea is to prepare students for a world in which technology is ubiquitous, and where memorizing facts and figures is all but redundant when all human knowledge is mere keystrokes (and now mere utterances) away. Assessing what a student knows therefore becomes more concerned with how they harness data and make sense of it – so analysis rather than simple recall. And by promoting digital fluency through early exposure to, and adoption of, devices, the understanding is that children will be better equipped to navigate an ever-changing technological world.
Beyond the near-immediate access to information and the promotion of analytical skills, however, there are yet more reasons to bring voice into the education process. Voice dictation and text-to-speech could help students with dysgraphia and dyslexia, while for younger children who can often talk a mile-a-minute before learning to read, communication skills can be honed before they even know how to hold a pen.
For Roman Kalantari, who is head of creative technology at Fjord in New York, there is “tremendous opportunity for voice to play a meaningful part in education”. He points in particular to multimodal experiences.
“For younger kids, it will be critical to extend these voice experiences outside of the speakers and connect to physical objects in their world. It is an exciting opportunity for designers, technologists, educators and parents to partner and create new ways to stimulate learning and creativity.”
Kalantari and Fjord recently created an Alexa skill for kids called Outer Space Alice which follows a fictional teenage astronaut and her robot partner Pierre as they orbit the earth abord the International Space Station.
“The Outer Space Alice system takes real-time data, including the Nasa ISS position, current weather and time of day, to generate unique responses so kids feel they are talking to a real character looking down from space,” he explains. “Because the ISS moves so quickly (about five miles a second), kids can come back often and hear a new fact about Nasa, geography, cultures, languages and other fun facts about the world.”
Kalantari says that designing skills for kids is fun, but also challenging “as you have to be ready to respond to unpredictable interactions to keep them engaged”.
“During our development of Outer Space Alice, we had to add a lot more detail about Alice than we expected. Kids wanted to know her favorite book, detail about her parents, hear her tell a story and be able to tell her good night.”
For its part, Amazon is all too aware of the massive opportunities education could hold for itself and others in the voice space and last August dropped 1,600 Echo Dots off to engineering students at Arizona State University. Around the same time it announced it would stumped up a $250,000 prize fund for skills aimed at educating, entertaining and engaging children under the age of 13.
This feature first appeared in The Drum's July issue, which focused on the growth of voice technology.