How can we use conversational technology and AI to foster meaningful interactions? — A SPACE10 exploration in Singapore

Do you speak human? Photo by Paris Chia

For the last few months we’ve been exploring the future of conversational interfaces and AI, looking into what life will be like when we’re able to talk to our devices just as natively as we do with our friends. We’ve been learning, reading and discussing, tested out some experiments of our own, and getting increasingly curious to see what perspectives there are on the topic around the world.

In early December, we took off to Singapore together with IKEA to conduct an exploration with students from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Seeing as Singapore has one of the highest rates of smartphone penetration globally, and is also the region’s frontrunner when it comes to the use of instant messaging apps, we were excited to see how some of the brightest young minds in the city envision a future where computers are finally able speak the language of humans.

In collaboration with NUS Enterprise, we invited students from four faculties — design, computing, business and engineering — and asked them how IKEA can use conversational tech and AI to foster meaningful interactions with people. The students were given three days to work on creative concepts for ways to integrate voice- or text-based conversational interfaces either within the IKEA customer experience or life at home in general.

Shiny happy people from NUS, IKEA and SPACE10. Photo by Paris Chia

We kicked off with a day of inspirational talks providing different perspectives on the topic as well as insights to the IKEA customer journey and life at home around the world.


The state of conversational interfaces

Kaave Pour, SPACE10

Kaave started with a presentation on where we are with conversational interfaces today and and how we got here, mapping out the most important enabling and complementary technologies and discussing the meaning of design in a context where there is no visual interface.

Kaave Pour. Photo by Paris Chia

Key takeaways:

  1. The next big media platforms are mobile-native: We’re finally seeing interfaces and media that are truly made for people’s phones. They take shape of messaging apps, voice interfaces, smart gadgets, and other technologies that are personalized based on context.
  2. Bye apps, hello chats: App downloads have gone down, and the few apps we do use, we use a lot. We’re also seeing social networking apps being surpassed by messaging apps, and a rise of mini apps and rich messages within messaging apps.
  3. A new role for design: In the context of conversational interfaces, design is all about creating a better experience around data — whether it’s relating to animation, voice or personality.
“Chats are the new interface, and bubbles and skills the new apps.”

Designing personality

Aysha Akbar, Mimetic.ai

Aysha picked up on the note of designing personality and shared some of the design decisions behind the personality of their AI-powered meeting scheduling assistant Evie. Mimetic.ai set out to shorten the time it takes to schedule meetings via email, and make it possible to Cc in Evie to take over the conversation when it’s time to get something on the calendar.

Aysha Akbar. Photo by Paris Chia

Key takeaways:

  1. Function first: Evie does exactly one thing — she schedules meetings. Narrowing down her functionality and interactions also meant narrowing down her personality.
  2. Defining her traits: As Evie’s based solely on text, her entire personality is dependent on words and sentence structure. The goal was to make her concise, yet approachable, professional without being curt, and friendly, without encouraging more back and forth.
  3. Clarity, direction, momentum, decision guidance, usefulness, attention to detail and empathy are key ingredients to crafting great user (bot) experiences.
“In conversational UI, personality is the new UX.”

Future homes with IoT

Paul Soon, Huawei

Digital interfaces have spread to an array of internet-connected devices for our homes, cars and personal spaces. To learn more about the role of conversational interfaces in the context of IoT and smart homes, we invited Paul Soon from Huawei.

Paul Soon. Photo by Paris Chia

Key takeaways:

  1. The future home is about bringing it with you everywhere you go. With the use of AI and machine learning, brands are finally starting to get it right.
  2. Smart home users will increase to around 300 million by 2020. The biggest business opportunities are within home security, home surveillance and energy management.
  3. The idea of the smart home is nothing new, but to realize its full potential we need a collaboration model based on an open ecosystem and joint innovation.
“Voice assistants will bring smart homes to the next level.”

AI, conversation as a service, and machine learning

Nobu Ito and James Lee, Microsoft

Nobu and James continued with a deep dive into AI and machine learning. They talked about the importance of creating affordable transformative tech that connects the physical and the digital, and demoed the powers of Microsoft’s Cognitive Services API’s.

Nobu Ito. Photo by Paris Chia

Key takeaways:

  1. Microsoft recently expanded their AI efforts by creating a global AI team of 5.000 people.
  2. Visual intelligence to help the blind: Seeing AI is a research project that helps people who are visually impaired or blind to better understand who and what’s around them.
  3. Next-level image recognition: CaptionBot.ai is a demo-app that describes what it sees in images. It can understand thousands of objects as well as the relationships between them.

Conversational interfaces

Ethan Ow, CapitaLand

Ethan talked about their experiences of working with conversational interfaces in a commercial context, discussing how our shopping behaviors have evolved, when it makes sense to use chat and when it does not, and where we will go from here.

Ethan Ow. Photo by Paris Chia

Key takeaways:

  1. A change in consumer behavior: We prefer to shop online, and we prefer to do it through our phones and tablets. E-commerce is not dead, but with the rise of apps like WeChat, we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what conversational commerce can become.
  2. Why use chat? It’s engaging and interactive, 91 percent of mobile phone time is spent on chat, and chat solutions are both cheap and quick to develop compared to e-commerce.
  3. Chat is most useful when it comes to finding information quickly and carry out simple, repeated transactions.
“It’s necessarily not about perceiving chatbots as human — it’s about perceiving them as good and helpful.”

Life at home

Kirsten Hasler, Inter IKEA Systems B.V.

Moving on to the IKEA side of things, Kirsten shared insights from IKEA’s Life at Home Report on how we live and relate to our home and surroundings. The report is conducted on an annual basis and gathers responses from around 12.000 people in 12 countries.

Kirsten Hasler. Photo by Paris Chia

Key takeaways:

  1. Our senses can make us feel better at home. Smell, taste, sound, sight and touch are the five senses that people associate with their home.
  2. 48 percent think of their homes as where they have their most important relationships. Almost 1 in 4 think Wi-Fi is more important than social space to nurture relationships at home.
  3. 37 percent believe the concept of home goes beyond the four walls. They see places such as their favorite cafés as an extension of their home.

The IKEA customer experience map

Josephine Meijaard, Inter IKEA Systems B.V.

To wrap up the talks session, Josephine introduced the IKEA Customer Experience Map. The map is a framework for understanding common customer behaviors, needs and expectations, and a tool to stimulate thinking and actions — from strategic planning all the way down to simple solutions. In short, it’s the key to understanding what makes a great IKEA experience.

Josephine Meijaard. Photo by Paris Chia

During the following two and a half days, 48 students in 12 teams worked away on concepts either within the IKEA customer experience or life at home, being interrupted only by a halfway-there IKEA assembly competition to reboot and get a well-earned break.

All work, all play. Photos by Paris Chia

At the end of day three, the time had come for the students to pitch their concepts in front of a panel of judges from SPACE10, IKEA, NUS and the Singaporean startup community. The ideas presented a wide range of possibilities — from smart fridges and furniture to help us lead healthier, more sustainable lives, to an AI-powered personal assistant for parents of children with autism, a mixed reality assembly assistant, augmented reality games for kids, and more.

Getting ready to pitch. Photos by Paris Chia

All groups impressed the judges with well-considered, creative concepts and great presentations, but in the end two teams stood out for their imaginative and strong yet simple ideas. Both were awarded a all-expense-paid trip to Scandinavia in the new year to visit SPACE10 in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the IKEA Museum in Älmhult, Sweden.

Each team had ten minutes to present their idea. Photos by Paris Chia

The first winning team, Spatial, set out to fight loneliness amongst the elderly and make it possible to share memories and experiences across distances. With their conversational tech- and AI-powered digital frame, kids and grandchildren would be able to send photos, videos and other messages to their parents and grandparents, who in return could initiate a conversation or make requests based on the received.

The elderly are frequently neglected when it comes to new technology — as the user interface often requires technological know-how or takes time to learn — but with a purely conversational interface, all interactions would be voice-based. Therefore, the idea also demonstrated how conversational interfaces can provide access to technology for people in whole new ways.

Team Spatial. Photo by Paris Chia

The second winning team, Duktig, addressed the in-store experience with particular focus on guiding shoppers and creating shared experiences for groups. The team set out to reinvent the iconic IKEA pencil and give it an active new role as a personal assistant during the IKEA visit, using conversational tech, AI and bone conduction.

Simply by putting the pencil behind the ear, rushed shoppers could get to desired products more quickly, curious browsers receive guidance and advice, and groups be able to synchronize their experiences, eg. around games. Because, as the team argued, the IKEA pencil is way too symbolic just to become a souvenir.

Team Duktig. Photo by Paris Chia

We would like to thank all the students who participated, and stress how impressed we were with your ability to come up with such inspiring and creative concepts in just three days. Thanks also to the presenters from Mimetic.ai, Huawei, Microsoft, CapitaLand, the great team from IKEA, and our kind hosts at NUS Enterprise.

We’re looking forward to seeing the winning teams again in the new year.


Want to add perspectives? Talk about conversational interfaces? Know something about artificial intelligence? Are you building your own chat bot? Working on a prototype in your basement? Or do you have some kind of point of view on this?

Send us an email at daniel@space10.io or hit us up on Twitter. We can’t wait to chat with you. To help spread the word about the exploration to others, please tap or click “♥︎”.

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