Hey Siri, what’s the future of VoiceTech?
Written by OMERS Ventures Partner, Shawn Chance
I think our children will look back at us and wonder why, nearly 200 years after the invention of the humble typewriter, we still interface with technology predominantly by pressing (or touching) a seemingly random arrangement of letters and numbers.
It seems inevitable that our voice is destined to feature more prominently as we evolve alongside our technology. Perhaps less obvious is the fact that voice (and the very concept of speech) represents an incredibly rich data source that remains largely untapped today and will be harnessed to unlock powerful personal and professional insights in the near future.
Voice technology (VoiceTech) has recently moved out of the early-adopter phase and into the (early) mainstream. The movement has primarily been propagated though consumer hardware (smartphones and smart speakers) with voice assistants on smartphones making up the bulk of usage today -not surprising, since US smartphone penetration rate rose to 70.5% in 2019¹.
Although the predominant players in the voice space don’t provide access to usage data, we can turn to other public sources such as Google Trends to derive insights into how usage patterns are evolving over time. For example, the increased use of the term “Hey Google” gives us reason to believe that humans are becoming increasingly comfortable speaking to their technology².
Interestingly, most voice commands are still being used in closed spaces, when users are alone. However, a recent survey showed the increased use of voice commands in public places, including in restaurants, at the gym or even in theatres³.
It’s no surprise that young people are driving this change. In the last three years, their use of voice-enabled Digital Assistants has gone up by 10–28%, whereas growth among Gen X and Baby Boomer users is somewhere between 2–3% a year⁴.
Even though their primary use cases in North America remain relatively limited (playing music and asking about the weather are some of the higher frequency actions), the recent proliferation of smart speakers (from Amazon, in particular, crossing the 10 million smart speaker shipments in Q3 2019) represents fertile ground for innovation.[vi] Elsewhere in the world, Alibaba’s AliGenie is touting over 1 million retail orders in a single day via voice, indicating that commerce may soon become a widely adopted use case for voice in Asia. As a platform, these devices have yet to reach their full potential, but their influence is far reaching — from being catalysts for voice in the consumer mindset to their potential as data capture interfaces in the enterprise.
Voice in the enterprise
The enterprise has yet to adopt voice technology at scale, with a few notable exceptions. “Following the money”, it’s no surprise that sales functions have been among the first to adopt voice technology and players such as Gong.io and Chorus.ai have enjoyed success as first movers in the Natural Language Processing (NLP) space. This use case in particular showcases the power of leveraging latent data from sales call to surface insights on everything from customer buying triggers through to informing product and marketing roadmaps. What happens when we begin to capture and leverage the other insights that lie dormant within speech is an interesting question to ponder.
With an increasing demand for contactless interfaces due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is reason to believe in further acceleration of the use of voice technology, with some researchers claiming VoiceTech could grow 30% due to the pandemic⁵. We’re already seeing a growing number of applications for physical spaces, for example in China where voice-activated elevators and voice-enabled electronic medical records are gaining traction.
Finally, an important ethical debate on privacy and trust around voice has ensued as devices continue to capture data while in our pockets, homes and workplaces. This debate may be the single most important inflection point to shape the future of VoiceTech. Interesting syndicates are forming to address this fundamental trust issue, one of the more prominent being the Open Voice Network.
I have committed to spending more time looking at voice technology over the months and years to come. It’s a fascinating space that has the potential to go in many different directions. To get involved at the stage where conversation between all sorts of stakeholders will play an important role in determining the future, is a once in a generation opportunity. I’d be happy to exchange with anyone who shares this interest and look forward to being a part of shaping this exciting future.