“Alexa, what time is my next train to work?”
“There is a 20-minute delay. The next train departs from Berlin Central Station at 9:42 and will arrive at Westkreuz at 9:54.”
“Alexa, please email Janet and Tim to say: Sorry, my train is delayed. I’ll be 10 minutes late for our meeting, can we start at 10:10 a.m.?”
Conversational interactions like this one will undoubtedly be part of our future. Tech giants like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are heavily investing in the race to become the leader in voice technology.
Voice interactions have been catapulted into the limelight in the past year, but why is this decade-old technology only now becoming a big deal? Although computers have been able to accept voice commands since the ‘90s, these interfaces never lived up to their potential. Thanks to the advancement of cloud data and AI, we are finally capable of delivering on the promise of a truly conversational interface.
The growing popularity of voice services like Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana have made conversational interfaces the number one priority for today’s tech giants. These applications seek to create a complex, keyboardless interaction using the simplest tool available — the human voice.
Top tech players’ renewed focus on advancing voice processing technology will be the main driver in spreading voice interfaces throughout other industries. Touchscreen interfaces existed before the iPhone, but the technology and interactions weren’t at the level to create widespread adoption until Apple made its move. Voice is now reaching a similar tipping point.
At its I/O 2017 conference, Google claimed to have reduced its Word Error Rate from 8.9 percent to 4.5 percent in one year using deep learning algorithms. Such improvements in voice-processing technology are generating high hopes for voice user interfaces. This is good news for any industry that stands to benefit from voice interactions.
Here’s a look at some of the industries where voice technology will completely transform how consumers use products and services.
Drivers are currently very limited in what they can do while driving. Because of safety regulations, the auto industry has only been able to offer limited tactile interactions. Hands-free voice interfaces will give carmakers a plethora of new options. This technology will also increase safety by allowing drivers to keep their eyes on the road.
Many drivers already use voice interactions on their phones while they drive. If the auto industry acts quickly, it could become the primary interface for an audience that is often captive for several hours a day during commutes. Driving will be a very different experience in the future, and your car could soon function as the interface layer for your life.
Digital assistants are competing for the attention of consumers interested in voice command, and the automotive industry could have a piece of the action. Our behavior in cars of the future will likely resemble our behavior in the office or the living room. This means voice interactions will be key.
2. High-tech wearables
Screenless wearables will enjoy continued success thanks to voice technology. So far, devices like Fitbit have worked as sensors that require an additional mobile interface. With voice, these wearables can begin to function independently of operating systems.
Even small screen devices like Google Glass will benefit from voice commands. Part of the failure of Google Glass was that wearing the tech felt conspicuous. Without the need for physical buttons or displays, devices like Glass will become smaller, lighter, and less distracting. Voice control will increase adoption of wearable tech and allow these devices to be integrated into consumers’ daily lives.
3. Customer service
Voice technology has already significantly impacted customer service, and conversational interfaces will usher in even greater change in years to come. An example of this is the way call centers have been using voice recognition technology to increase their conversational abilities. Any role that relies on communication will be improved with a voice interface. A human-to-human connection will always be ideal, but there are many situations where voice interface could augment connection.
Front desk clerks might find themselves with more time for important tasks when a device like Amazon Alexa eliminates simple tasks. Retailers might find that having a voice interface in their stores allows them to accomplish the same job with fewer employees on the floor.
It will be interesting to see which companies embrace this technology, and the effect this will have on their customer experience. One thing is sure: An investment in Voice User Interfaces (VUIs) now could save money down the line when the public is more comfortable speaking to a digital assistant.
4. Devices for the visually impaired
VUIs will also allow those with visual impairment to interact with the world in ways they were previously denied. Accessibility on the web and mobile always feels like an afterthought that most companies fail to address entirely. Tech companies are finally doing something that will help this frequently neglected demographic.
For the first time, someone without sight will have as much ease of use and accessibility as someone who can use a touchscreen. This is one of the most exciting aspects of voice control because it has the power to change lives.
5. Language translation and real-time interpretation
Language translation could also experience a boom with the rise of voice recognition. Companies like Google are investing in smarter voice processing systems that stand to change the future of the industry. For example, Google Translate has evolved from a simple text translation app to a full-fledged translator with listening capabilities.
Advances like this are due to voice processing and machine learning research, and companies will use developments in voice processing technologies to build even more power into their language processing. Imagine being able to understand every language on the planet through a simple wearable. This could become a reality thanks to progress in voice technology.
Full steam ahead
Despite its slow start, voice interaction is now gaining momentum at an exciting rate. So far, we’ve aimed to recreate basic human conversations. In the future, we may see voice surpass keyboards and screens in terms of the richness of interactions.
Human vocal communication was pivotal in the development of our species, and VUIs offer the ability to communicate with machines in a more efficient way. It’s exciting to imagine the applications we will invent with this new interface.
As these industries begin to realize the power of voice, we will also see a huge demand for VUI designers. It’s rare that you come across a designer who specializes in conversational interfaces, but in a few years they will become much more prevalent. When the iPhone debuted in 2007, it’s doubtful there were many designers who specialized in touch interfaces. Today, the voice interface is ripe for similar success, and the time to invest in learning these skills is now.
Jeffrey is the head of design at Berlin tech school, CareerFoundry.