Forget the Internet of Things (IoT) – it’s a bubble. The majority of products currently claiming to be IoT devices are just the same, vertical Machine to Machine (M2M) products we’ve always had, but taking the opportunity to benefit from a rebrand. Most of the rest of the IoT is the wet dream of Venture Capitalists and Makers who think that by overfunding and stimulating each other’s egos in a frenzy of technical masturbation, they can create a consumer market for the Internet of Things. As the IoT slips slowly backwards into the foothills of Gartner’s Hype curve you need to look elsewhere to find the real Internet device opportunity, which is only just emerging. It’s the IoV, or the Internet of Voice.
The problem that the current IoT paradigm has, is that it’s mostly about collecting data and then applying algorithms to extract value from the data. That’s a difficult job. You need to make the devices, work out how to connect them and then hope you can find something valuable within the data to engage the customer. The problem is that all of that takes time, not least the time to get a critical mass of products out into the field. The Catch 22 which most business plans ignore is that you need to deploy tens of thousands of devices to accumulate enough data before you can even see if there’s anything of value in it. But without an upfront value, people are loath to buy the devices. Everyone, from wearables manufacturers to smart cities, is discovering that it’s not a very compelling business case, not least because it needs fairly technical consumers to install everything in the first place.
The Internet of Voice takes a different route. Instead of expecting users to know anything about the IoT, they just get to ask questions and then get answers. No more buttons, no more keyboards, no more coding, just ask. But it has the power to control everything we come into contact with. It could mark the end of our love affair with smartphones and is probably the biggest threat that Apple faces today.
In many ways, the Internet of Voice is just the latest step in a constant journey of human enquiry. From the questions posed to the Delphic oracle, to the more recent fictional incarnations of HAL and Her, humanity has been captivated by asking questions and getting an apparently intelligent response. Today, we’re at the point where technology is moving that from fact to fiction and users are finding it remarkably addictive.
“IoT Could Mark the end of our Love Affair With Smartphones and is Probably the Biggest Threat That Apple Faces Today.”
Rather surprisingly, given how oral our societies are, voice has often been the poor cousin of video. Telephone voice quality has frequently been terrible. Bluetooth headsets have performed a useful function in allowing phone calls whilst driving, but for most users, or rather recipients of a call from someone using a headset, the best one could hope for was that the voice was recognisable. The more upmarket section of the industry has worked hard to improve voice quality, but in general voice quality has been mediocre, with users content with old fashioned, telephony quality. Trying to do voice recognition through a headset often felt like an exercise largely dependent on chance.
The perception of voice has changed dramatically over the past few years, although bizarrely, it’s received limited recognition. The change started with Siri – Apple’s voice assistant, which was copied and improved on with Google’s Voice Search (now Now) and Microsoft’s Cortana. Users have taken to talking to their phones; last May, Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, reported that 20% of queries on its mobile app were now voice queries. However, the best indication of what voice could do came when Amazon launched Alexa on the Echo at the end of 2014.
Alexa introduced users to the concept of talking to the Internet whenever they wanted to know something, buy something or play music. It signalled a major change by removing the need to interact with any device; you no longer needed to take a phone out of your product or press a button – you just spoke a key word or phrase to the internet. It’s difficult to underestimate the importance of this change. Whilst some may find it creepy, just asking a question is so natural that it’s difficult to understand why it has taken so long to get there. The reason for that delay is that voice recognition is difficult. It’s needed a number of different technology enablers to come together: reliable, fast internet speeds for users, low cost, low latency cloud services and the machine learning for voice recognition to move it from novelty to everyday reality. Put them together and we’re now at that point where we can envisage a conversational internet.
Once you can talk to the Internet things start to change. Amazon, Google and Microsoft regularly present slides that show this as the natural evolution of user input, as we progress from keyboards to mice to smartphones to just talking. They refer to it as the new “conversational interface”, signifying that the internet is undergoing a hand to mouth evolution.
Why is this important? In five years, if voice recognition continues to improve at its current pace, then people may look back and wonder why they ever used a keyboard. But there’s another aspect to that evolution – people may also wonder why they ever tapped a smartphone. If all you need to do to get information is to vocalise your question, then it may not take long for people to fall out of love with their smartphones. In the same way that Apple destroyed the feature phone market, Amazon may equally well destroy the smartphone market.
“In Five Years, if Voice Recognition Continues to Improve at its Current Pace, Then People may Look Back and Wonder Why They Ever Used a Keyboard.”
The reason for that is that whilst Siri, Voice Search and Cortana have mainly been used as keyboard replacements, taking away the pain of typing on a smartphone, Alexa does something else. For many users it has become a companion. In the same way as normal conversation, you don’t need to take anything out of your pocket or press a button – you just talk. In an interview with New Scientist, Daren Gill, director of product management for Alexa, says he has been surprised by how often people try to engage the assistant in purely social interaction. “Every day, hundreds of thousands of people say “good morning” to Alexa,” he says. “Half a million people have professed their love. More than 250,000 have proposed. You could write these off as jokes, but one of the most popular interactions is “thank you” – which means people are bothering to be polite to a piece of technology”.
There is little doubt that users find it appealing. From its initial application of ordering more things from Amazon, its use has expanded, thanks to Amazon’s approach to allowing anyone to add in skills, where additional keywords can direct the conversation to other companies. “Alexa, ask Meat Thermometer the temperature for pork?” will tell you how to cook a piece of pig. “Alexa, ask Tube Status about delays on the Victoria line” tells me about delays into the office. “Alexa, ask Wine Mate what goes with zebra?” tells Amazon something about my culinary experiments.
This is Part 1 of a 2 part series. In part 2, Nick Hunn will elaborate on the Artificial Intelligence potential within the context of ‘The Internet Of Voice’