If you are an analyst or enthusiast following the latest trends in the consumer technology industry, you may be feeling a little jaded, or less than excited by the seemingly unnecessary flood of “AI voice enabled” everything on the market. For instance, what is the real purpose of a voice enabled coffee machine if you still have to walk over and put a cup under it? Couldn’t you just press the button while you are there?
I have to admit to sneering in derision at many a banner lining the halls of trade shows this year with every other gadget vying for a place in the smart home by proclaiming its conversational capabilities. But a recent keynote at Microsoft #FutureDecoded in London delivered by Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft, gave me pause for thought. Jenny made the statement that at some point in our lives, every single one of us will find ourselves “partially able”, even if it’s only on a temporary basis and at this point we will discover how choices made in restricting the way we can interact with technology has a severe impact on its accessibility and usability. She gave examples of instances where we might find ourselves temporarily partially able, like perhaps when we are holding a small child or have suffered an injury that has limited us to the use of one hand for a period of time. Or perhaps the example that resonated more and more with me as I get older, temporarily misplacing my reading glasses such that I cannot decipher the fiddly buttons or tiny written instructions found on tech and in apps today. The projects that Jenny and her team are involved in are opening up new opportunities and changing lives for people across the entire disability spectrum and I encourage you to look her up to find out more about her inspiring work.
Her keynote got me thinking about times when I (currently mostly fully abled apart from the glasses thing) use the voice interfaces around me. Previously, when I was cooking, I used to have to wash my hands before I could change the radio station or select a Spotify playlist or answer a call on my phone or set a timer – all disrupting the process of cooking. Now these and a whole lot more are all achieved via voice thanks to Alexa on my Echo Dot sitting unobtrusively on the kitchen counter and without any interruption to my creative cooking process.
But the Dot is not only used by me. I was pleasantly surprised when I walked in one day on my wife asking Alexa to “play her music from the Bee Gees” (please don’t judge her on her music choices ..….). Now while this might seem totally banal to you readers, let me point out that for the last 5 years or so the kids and I had been streaming Spotify music all over the house to various connected devices but no matter how hard we tried, my wife found the process all too complicated and bewildering. The minute we plugged an Alexa in, the entire technology stack of smart speakers and streaming devices was abstracted down a simple voice request and she could relate to!
There is a great case study into the impact that voice enabled smart speakers can have on people’s lives in old age homes through opening up a huge range of services they might have previously found too complicated to access via a smartphone or other technology barriers.
There are many cases other than limited or diminished sight or mobility (having recently watched a friend with Parkinson’s struggling to interact with a phone was truly heart wrenching) where voice interfaces come into their own. During a recent holiday I hired a dirt bike for a day to go off and explore a few lesser-travelled paths. This was the first real outing for my voice enabled GoPro action camera – a feature I had previously questioned belonging on such a device. I found myself on a trail where taking either of my hands off the grips to press a button would have resulted in me landing up in a rice paddy …….. but shouting “GoPro start recording” meant that I captured the segments that I needed without wasting time or space with loads of useless footage to wade through later.
The camera being voice enabled also lowered the technology barrier for the rest of the group of us on holiday together. There was no steep learning curve – anyone could simply pick up the camera whenever they wanted to and say the same command (which might be a downside in certain circumstances!!) – this in itself was a huge change from any tech I had taken on holiday with me before.
Voice interfaces lower the accessibility barrier across the spectrum of both physical ability and mind-set. Being our most natural interface, the better a voice assistant can understand the messy way that we communicate, the better it can help us and the more useful it can be to us, the more likely we are to use it.
I was recently requested to help the executive team of an organisation looking to launch a new digital bank, in a geography that is currently underserved by the incumbents, explore the “art of the possible” by leveraging the latest in Fintech innovation. One of the concerns to be addressed is that less than half of the population in this geography has a bank account. There are obvious mind-set and culture challenges to address but of particular concern to this organisation is making the onboarding / new account opening process as simple as possible. As they will not have any physical branches, this will be a digital journey. One of the technologies that I suggested they seriously consider is voice. My suggestion was inspired by this clip of the enigmatic Jason Mars of Clinc.ai at the Digital Money Forum at CES earlier this year demonstrating exactly how this could be done.
I’ve known Jason for a while now and I am still impressed every time he gets on stage and does a live demo of the way that his voice assistant is reaching what he calls “person in the room level” conversational understanding. You don’t have to follow any set script, you don’t have to learn specific commands – you just simply talk and the assistant interprets and carries out your commands.
Tech that does what you want without you having to RTFM?
Now THAT is something worth getting excited about!
What are you looking forward to seeing come about in the year ahead?