Voice technology: the new frontier

Fifty years ago, audiences watched Captain Kirk ask the Starship Enterprise computer for information using only his voice. While voice technology was seen as something that belonged in sci-fi, it was the ultimate aim for ease of communication.

And just like drones, robotics and artificial intelligence, today we are seeing future technologies become a reality and voice-activated intelligent assistants are entering consumers' homes in the form of Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Google Home – which launched in the UK only this week.

Voice is not completely new, consumers may remember using their smartphones to ask Siri for the weather or to tell Microsoft's Cortana a joke, but the results were often laughable. Even now 45% of people only use voice "because it's fun", according to a report released this week by JWT and Mindshare.

But today, advancements in voice recognition and natural language processing have improved dramatically and speech recognition error rates are similar to a human's at 5%.

The JWT and Mindshare 'Speak Easy' report states 87% of regular voice users believe the technology simplifies their lives, but only when it works properly.

Duncan Anderson, European CTO at IBM Watson, says every decimal point matters: "5.1% and 5.9% is everything – it's the difference between people thinking it's great and people thinking it's rubbish. A few percentage points is a massive achievement, it sounds little but it's everything."

Today's consumers want to interact with technology and information in all parts of their lives, but traditional screen interfaces are not always appropriate – in the car, while watching TV or using a wearable device – this is where experts think voice can step in to become the natural way to communicate with our surroundings. Not to mention the benefits of not constantly craning our necks to look down at our iPhones: 44% of smartphone users believe voice technology will help people interact more with each other, never mind technology.

What about shopping?

But it's exactly that lack of screen with home voice devices like Amazon's Alexa and Google Home, which deters consumers from using the products for shopping. While Amazon would like to see its users ask Alexa to order every item that comes to mind, only 18% of regular voice users have bought a product using their vocal chords, without looking at the product online first. While 24% of consumers have bought a product using their voice after seeing it elsewhere.

One voice shopper in the 'Speak Easy' report said: "I don't trust it that much and I always log in on my phone to check if the right item has been ordered."

Marie Stafford, EU director, innovation group at JWT, says: "It's such a big change having a lack of a screen and to buy things without seeing the size of it and the specific variants… looking at a product in store or online you can get this at a glance – this is quite difficult to achieve with no to-and-fro interaction."

But Jeremy Pounder, futures director at Mindshare, tells Essential Retail the intelligence of digital assistants will continue to improve, but in the meantime, voice is ideal for repeat purchases, like 'Alexa, order my toothpaste' or 'Siri, place my usual order from Deliveroo'.

Moving forward, IBM's Anderson believes home devices will soon be manufactured with a screen. And a quick Google search reveals rumours that the next Amazon Echo device will feature a touchscreen which would help convert voice users into voice shoppers.

"Voice is an isolated channel, but it's evolving to be part of an ecosystem," he explains.

Anderson describes how the first step for the big voice players in the market was to develop cheaper devices – without touchscreens – to prove an appetite for the technology, which there certainly seems to be with Comscore now forecasting 50% of all searches will be conducted through voice by 2020.

Advertising and voice

A screen interface would also solve the problem of traditional advertising models struggling to monetise voice technology.

Only last month, Google Home was left red faced after it informed users simply wanting to know the weather forecast or receive a traffic update about the new live-action film, Beauty and the Beast. Google Home users were outraged and Google quickly removed the ad.

Results from the Speak Easy report unsurprisingly found voice advertisements jarring to the conversation consumers are having with their digital assistant.

Joseph Evans, senior researcher at Enders Analysis, points to a big shift away from paid media to owned media. Instead the voice apps – such as the skills in Amazon's Alexa ecosystem – are primed to be sponsored by brands, such as a cleaning skill in the US, giving consumers step-by-step stain removal instructions, which is sponsored by Tide.

He says: "If an advertisement interrupts the workflow of doing something, that's where this is no place for ads."