What are ways that voice-command devices will impact the way we interact with everyday items/products such as appliances?
Key trends in the future of voice-command devices are personalization via voice biometrics, the rise of the omnipresent 'intelligent assistant' across all devices, and the shrinking prominence of the device itself as compared to the 'intelligent assistant.' Key players in the smart home device sector are integrating touchscreens in devices that are also connected to voice-command functionality, with the intention that the touchscreen serve as a compliment to voice-command. Content consumption is already being mediated by Alexa, and the depth of this mediation is expected to increase. Below you'll find my methodology and relevant findings.
My research for existing and future trends, and current use case studies indicates that, because the technology and its adoption are nascent, the available information is repetitive of a few notable examples, and is relatively superficial. For this reason, I have relied on media coverage of recent tech conferences and recent information found in industry publications like Chatbots Magazine and Digital Trends for an authoritative overview of anticipated trends, supplemented with tech articles from The Economist and Time. My research discovered neither market research nor case studies relevant to the specific details of the request, which is likely due to the nascence of the voice-controlled device market.
CONTENT AND PRODUCT CONSUMPTION
Existing voice assistants currently have the capacity to mediate the interaction between the consumer and content: Amazon Echo's Alexa can "read audiobooks and news, play music, answer questions, report traffic and weather, give info on local businesses, provide sports scores and schedules, control lights, switches and thermostats, and order an Uber or Domino’s." Every single one of these capacities represents a mediation between the consumer and content, products or services; however, it is currently impacted by the limitations of artificial intelligence to recognize complex natural language, and to understand meaning.
For this reason, all major tech players in this sphere are focusing R&D on refining and deepening AI's capacity for natural language interactions. Chatbots are a key focus in both academic and industry research, relative to complex commands and elaborate conversations. At present, though, there have been no significant breakthroughs in chatbot understanding or complex language capacity, as is evidenced by Amazon's $1M prize offer "for a chatbot that can converse 'coherently and engagingly' for 20 minutes."
When this functional capacity is reached, the consumer will have the ability to give a direct, general command like 'find me a plumber,' and the voice-controlled device will be able to generate a list of plumbers based on factors that the device assesses are most important. However, this level of interaction poses a potential trade off for the consumer: what they gain in convenience may be sacrificed in control, since, at this level of interaction, the device is performing a significant amount of data curation.
This isn't necessarily a drawback; having a device perform trustworthy (and personalized) data curation could be seen as another level of convenience for the consumer. At this level of interaction, though, the consumer would have to trust the device's ability to curate in order for the technology to be effective. Additionally, the potential for personalization based on voice biometrics (see below) adds another layer to this curation, which could be further personalized to different individuals.
VOICE BIOMETRICS AND PERSONALIZATION
Voice biometrics are mentioned in multiple sources as being a key component of effective personalization in voice-commanded devices. Using this technology, the device would be able to distinguish different voices and provide personalized options to the individual user. For example, "different members of a household can be identified by their voice and instantly have access to individual custom home screens, commonly-searched-for content, recently-viewed, and personal web applications like social media feed." Voice biometric technology is not new; it has been in use for several years in multiple industries, including finance and security. However, it isn't a feature currently available in voice-controlled devices.
THE OMNI-PRESENT 'INTELLIGENT ASSISTANT'
Industry analyses posit that the devices themselves will fade into the background, and that the primary presence will be that of the 'omnipresent intelligent assistant' consistent across devices. This anticipated trend is not likely to emerge in the near future, however, for two reasons:
1. The smart home space is currently fragmented by disconnected devices and platforms. Samsung is actively addressing this by combining "Samsung Connect, Smart View, and Smart Home apps into one single platform launching this spring powered by SmartThings, the IoT company Samsung acquired in 2014," and it is reasonable to assume that other key players will follow suit.
2. It will also require that various devices can communicate with each other instead of communicating solely with the consumer, as is currently the case. At the moment, the aforementioned fragmentation is still a key block for device-to-device communication.
Closely related to this anticipated trend is the changing nature of the user interface.
USER INTERFACE EVOLUTION
While voice operation technology is not anticipated to fully replace screen use, one industry insider opines: "The computer as we know it has been shrinking and, in many ways, will disappear and become a nexus connecting us via speech. There will still be touch screens and VR headsets, perhaps even ephemeral holographic displays in the next ten years. However, voice interfaces will continue to grow and supplement these experiences." This suggests that the idea of the 'computer' and 'device' as we know it is anticipated to change dramatically, so that the consumer's experience would be one of interacting with a house full of interconnected devices, instead of interacting with distinct devices within a connected house. Currently, voice-controlled appliances are limited to functions controlled by a simple voice command, and only when they are connected with an existing voice-command device like Alexa. One example is the recent Whirlpool collaboration with Alexa to enable voice control of connected Whirlpool appliances.
Interestingly, key players have recently been increasing the presence of touchscreens on voice-controlled devices. These screens are being integrated primarily to provide information additional to what is being conveyed in the voice-controlled interaction.
CURRENT CONTENT CONSUMPTION CAPACITY
Multiple brands have already integrated their brand content into voice-controlled devices, a trend which is expected to increase. For example, Patron Tequila recently partnered with Alexa to provide a library of cocktail recipes accessible via voice commands. It also launched an "AI-enabled chatbot" for voice devices which suggests recipes "based on local trends, insights and personal preferences," and which can even order the ingredients to arrive to the user's home.
Industry opinions converge in the expectation that voice-commanded devices will become part of a seamlessly connected house, so that the devices themselves fade into the background. Content consumption is already being mediated by voice-controlled devices, and this mediation is anticipated to increase in scope. Chatbots are perceived as the potential solution for complex conversational capacity, though there have been no significant breakthroughs in natural language understanding to date.