Where are all the voice assistants?

[An industry expert asks why voice assistants haven’t become more popular and used for more significant tasks, and provides two key answers, in this short commentary from MediaPost. See also “A Siri-ous guide to the world of voice assistants: AI virtual assistants explained for 2021” from UneeQ. –Matthew]

[Image: Source: “This is how people are using voice assistants during Coronavirus” in Voice]

COMMENTARY

Where Are All The Voice Assistants?

By Cory Treffiletti, Featured Contributor
July 28, 2021

A few years back I was involved in helping launch and build a voice assistant business. I loved it. The company was Voicea, which we sold to Cisco, and was eventually integrated into Webex. During that time, I became entrenched in the voice assistant and voice-oriented media landscape, helping to prognosticate where the voice-activated revolution would take us.

I became an avid user of voice-activated tools and assistants. Eva was taking notes for me. Alexa was telling me jokes. Google Home was helping me with recipes. Siri was making calls and sending texts. Even the voice-activated buttons in my car were useful to some limited degree.

I was intensely bullish on the future of voice-activated media engagement then. These days, my engagement with voice is radically less, and I find myself wondering if everyone else feels the same way.

The pandemic kept everyone at home and our usage of almost every digital platform increased, except our use of digital assistants. Digital assistants seem to have plateaued, which I don’t fully understand. Why aren’t these tools being used everywhere, every day?

The answer lies somewhere between privacy and practicality.

Privacy is likely the biggest impediment. For these tools to work, they have to be listening all the time. While Amazon and Apple have said they don’t use the ambient listening for anything specifically, it is still an uncomfortable fact that everything you say in your house is being listened to by someone. They may not retain that data, and they may not use that data (I have my doubts on that one), but the fact that privacy is infringed is enough to stop many people.

Practicality is the other reason. In practical application, these devices are wrong far too much of the time. Alexa is in my office and it is constantly interrupting me, saying it “didn’t quite hear” what I said. Of course, I wasn’t talking to it, but that rarely stops it from interrupting. Additionally, I ask Google Home questions all the time — and about 50% of the time, it has no answer. Sometimes it doesn’t understand my question. Sometimes it doesn’t hear me clearly.

All in all, the only people who really use these tools in our house are my kids — and for them it’s about playing music, telling the time, or hearing Alexa make fart noises. Yes, Alexa makes fart noises on demand.

I still think voice has a business. Conversational IQ is something that businesses will rely on going forward. Automated AI notetaking is an enormous benefit that I had come to depend on when we used it at Voicea, and I wish I had now. Plus, there are a number of tools being used on sales calls from Chorus and Gong, among others, that offer immediate value.

Voice is still a viable medium, but I think its use in the home is still under review. We haven’t uncovered the “killer app” for voice at home yet. You can use Alexa to turn on your lights or play music, but these conveniences are rarely outweighed by the privacy issues. I still wonder what will be the thing that overcomes the risks of privacy and gets Conversational IQ or activation into the home universally.

I guess we will see over the coming years. Until then, my mobile device is still the hub for my smart home — and it will continue that way for many, many people.

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