It can’t have escaped your attention that everyone is trying to get in on the voice-interaction act these days. Being the Createful, curious, techie types that we are, we wanted to explore this area for ourselves…

The current voice landscape

Voice activated electronic devices and speaking computers are nothing new of course. But what is new, is the emergence of sophisticated voice-interaction platforms that are:

  • General purpose;
  • Open to developers to create applications for.

A few years ago Apple introduced us to Siri. Microsoft have built their alternative, Cortana, into Windows 10. Arguably the leaders in this field are Google and Amazon with their respective products Google Assistant, and Alexa.

All four have, relatively recently, opened up their platform for third party developers in different ways. So brands and businesses of all shapes and sizes are scratching the surface of what it means to interact with their customers and users in this new screenless digital medium.

Some have gone as far to suggest that as soon as 2018, 30% of touch interactions will be replaced by voice. In fact, Google claims 20% of mobile search queries are already spoken rather than typed. It isn’t hard to see why. Speaking is easy, immediate and requires no hands. It is true, many voice requests are misinterpreted – but then fiddly tapping on soft keyboards also often yields questionable results.

A bewildering range of skills

Meanwhile, just last year Amazon sold over 5 million Echo and Echo dot devices, bringing the persona of Alexa into our homes. Also, the number of third party Alexa apps (Amazon calls them ‘skills’) grew to over 7000. Users can now…

  • Order pizza, taxis and any Amazon products;
  • Play adventure games and quizzes;
  • Listen to jokes, podcasts, audio-books, music libraries and radio stations;
  • Catch up on the news and weather;
  • Plan their itinerary, to-do list and calendar;
  • Control their lights, kettles and thermostats…

The list keeps growing.

Looking forward, Amazon wont restrict their voice technology to Alexa or to Echo devices. In addition, they are launching Lex – a program for bringing the same abilities to any device which has a microphone and a speaker. You may soon be speaking through it to your car, your watch, your smart-fridge or whatever else.

These applications don’t need to be downloaded, as they live ‘in the cloud’. Instead, you simply enable them by saying ‘Alexa enable the [ insert skill here ]’ and away you go.

In the Createful Office, we had great fun playing with Alexa. Some of our favourite skills so far include:

  • Baker Street Experience – An interactive radio drama, where scenes are punctuated by multiple choice questions. You to decide the route of the story;
  • Fitbit – users are able to access their stats and get audio motivation;
  • BMW – users can utilise Alexa to “lock doors” and access milage information from the comfort of their home.

Createful’s exploration

Of course, we weren’t content to leave it at playing with others’ apps. Our Createful urge was itching to put together our own ‘skill’. We were pleased to discover that doing this was pretty easy and quick to do – within 3 days we had a pretty decent working prototype. We could ask Alexa about the various members of the Createful team. She would reply with descriptions of their roles on staff:

“Alexa ask Createful about Shane”

“Shane is a Senior Developer at Createful – he really knows his stuff”

“What are his skills?”

“He knows about PHP, Servers, Android and IOS App development”

The hosting of such skills is cheap and easy:  First upload a bit of code to one of Amazon’s cloud services. These services take care of a lot of the heavy lifting and grunt work for you. Then fill out a brief form online. The service we used is free for the first million questions Alexa receives through the app every month.

My personal impression, from this initial hands-on experience, is that we are looking at a medium which is still very much in its infancy. Remember the websites of the early to mid nineties? In comparison to today’s slick offerings, they were often crude, ugly and clumsy. They evolved. They improved partly because the underlying technologies improved; partly because the design community refined their thinking; and partly because the average user became familiar and comfortable with emerging conventions.

The voice interaction field will surely go through that same awkward, multi-faceted process. It will grow through successive iterations. So now these platforms are open to the world’s developers, this evolution will speed up considerably.

The future

Here are some of the things we would like to see in the not-too-distant future:

  • More customisation – It would be great if apps could employ different voices, the ability to emphasise particular words, even the possibility of adopting custom personas;
  • Interruptions – As rude as we are told it is to interrupt people; speech will never completely feel natural until we can interrupt Siri or Alexa in mid-flow;
  • Taking the initiative – At present these voice A.I.s lie dormant until they hear their name. This will require a delicate approach to get right, but surely eventually they will be able to begin conversations and not just respond to them;
  • Selling apps – All Alexa skills are free to the user at present. There are no straight-forward ways to monetise a voice app. The ability to pay for voice apps, or to access paid-content within them will lead to more investment, more innovation, and better apps for all of us.

Maybe your business is keen to explore the opportunities provided by voice interaction? We would love to invite you to come in to the Createful studio for a live demo. Please email Adrian if you would like to arrange this.