Ilya Gelfenbeyn is the Founder and CEO of Api.ai.
The human voice is the most natural tool available to engage and connect with the world around us, but until recently there has been an impassable void between the human voice and technology. The film Her, where a man communicates seamlessly with a sentient operating system named Samantha, may have seemed to some like it portrayed a future many decades away. But systems to engage computers using your voice are already here, and with more people than ever using them, improving them and developing them, they are poised to reinvent the way people use technology.
The Apple Watch may be the greatest step yet toward a future where we communicate with our computers primarily with our voices and not our fingers, and there’s a reason Apple is calling it their “most personal device ever.” The watch is fully integrated with Siri, which is also getting a host of new voice features that will range from search options, comparisons on demand, and even reading things out loud, all through the watch. Alongside major new platforms like the Apple Watch tools are readily available to every company or developer to add voice operations to their products without expending vast resources. Technology not equipped for voice will soon be the exception, not the norm.
Let’s take a look at 4 reasons why voice is a must-have feature for developers making software, apps and hardware right now:
1. Voice drives engagement
NPR recently launched voice enabled ads that have conversations with people allowing them to get more info or initiate a download. These ads increase user engagement and drive interactions with people who would otherwise remain a passive consumer. Similarly, Jet Blue is also experimenting with this type of voice-enabled media, and has reported engagement rates more than 50 percent above average. Delta Airlines has taken voice interfaces even further and built an interactive voice response system that handles 36 million calls every year. Their ‘anticipatory customer service” system greets customers by name, offers proactive notifications and answers inquiries for “a more conversational, intelligent self-service experience” that has been well-received by customers.
Furthermore, the average person spends 15 hours per week in their car cut off from their their smartphones and 60 percent of people use an app once and never again. Hands free operations are a tremendous opportunity to engage them. Navdy, a dashboard mountable transparent heads up display extends phone apps into the car using voice recognition, and lets users tweet, text, and search using voice. The device will even read notifications aloud. It’s a smart move that leverages the relative scarcity of voice-enabled apps and consumer demand for more car-based functionalities.
2. Voice interfaces have crossed over into mainstream adoption
After years of uncertainty and ambivalence about smartphone voice-activated assistants, adoption is here, especially among teenagers. The 2014 Mobile Voice Study, commissioned by Google, found that 55 percent of teens and 41 percent of adults now use voice capabilities more than once a day. This represents an uptick since 2013, when fewer than half of Siri (48 percent) or Google Now (39 percent) users used the features for five or more activities a month.
3. Voice reaches both new markets and underserved audiences
Voice capabilities significantly enhance the accessibility of apps for people who have trouble with text. They accommodate a larger base of users, especially in the world’s huge, underserved markets. The Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) is an organization that uses an app to send essential health information to at-risk mothers in low-income areas in Bangladesh and South Africa. Because MAMA uses voice alerts along with SMS, anyone, regardless of literacy, can access and interact with its vital prenatal and pregnancy alerts, which has helped the organization serve more than 2 million at-risk and vulnerable women and families to save thousands of mothers and infants.
The potential of apps to serve underserved populations is not exclusive to developing countries. Be My Eyes is an innovative app developed in Denmark that brings together the visually impaired with sighted volunteers. Through the app, volunteers help the visually impaired perform any number of tasks by using smart phone cameras and video chats. A single day after launching, Be My Eyes servers were flooded with traffic and now it supports more than 150,000 registered volunteers and 15,000 users. An estimated 285 million people worldwide have impaired vision, but apps like Be My Eyes are few and far between excluding millions of people around the world from much of the incredible innovation taking place.
4. Voice functions are growing in the living room and home
Consider the living room. We now have an unprecedented amount of content to choose from when looking for something to watch, which makes finding what you want that much harder. That’s why companies like Comcast, Amazon and Roku are enthusiastically adding voice search to their set top boxes. Even when people are initially hesitant, functional voice controls win over in the end as Microsoft Kinect has shown. Despite an initial backlash about 80 percent of all Xbox owners now use Kinect for an average of more than 120 voice commands per month. Perhaps one of the most interesting uses of Kinect — like voice capabilities is the real-time strategy game, There Came An Echo, where players primarily play and issue orders using their voice. Beyond streamlined functionality, voice commands further immerse a player in the game’s world. The game began as a Kickstarter project, raised over 115,000 dollars and launched this past February on Playstation 4, XBox One and Windows.
But this is just the start. With the Internet of Things market expected to grow to 7.1 trillion dollars and consist of more than 50 billion devices by 2020, a world where everything is voice-enabled all the time is just around the corner. Within a few short years, voice capabilities will not be an “extra”. They will be a core component of any app or device that strives to create the best possible experience for its users. The time to respond to this coming tide is now, not later.
Do you use voice-enabled services? What do you see as voice technology’s future potential?