What AI and voice activation will do for brands in the home

What the new era of voice-activated devices in a home environment will do to the way consumers interact with brands

Even when Tamara Dull is home on her own, she is never really alone.

Throughout her house are scattered more than 100 home AI devices and controllers that help her do everything from monitor and control her environment to buy groceries.

As the director for emerging technology at SAS Institute, Dull has thrown herself into her AI experiment to help her understand the technology at a personal level.

“The reason I have [Amazon] Alexa is not to be cool, it is because AI is the next UX,” Dull says. “I control my home through voice. For me right now, it is more of a fun experiment – I just want to see how far I can take it.”

But it is an experiment that’s starting to have consequences.

“I’ve got a dependency on it,” Dull says. “Right now, when I travel and I don’t have my Alexa, I’ve got to start doing things manually again. I expect Google to remember things, so I don’t have to remember things.

“It is changing my life, and I feel like I am getting sucked into it.”

While Dull’s example may be extreme, it is possibly just a foretaste of what we might expect as AI devices establish a new channel between brands and the home environment.

Last year, Gartner predicted that by 2019, at least 25 per cent of households in developed economies would be using digital assistants on smartphones and other devices as the primary interface to connected home services, performing functions ranging from managing home climate settings to making suggestions on where to go for dinner.

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Today, the natural place for these assistants to reside is in the smartphone, although they are popping up on many Internet-connected devices including PCs and gaming consoles.

Growing quickly in the mix are dedicated devices (often referred to as intelligent or voice-controlled speakers). That market is currently dominated by Amazon’s Echo device and the Alexa AI that it connects to. This year, eMarketer estimated Amazon held 70.6 per cent of the US market for dedicated AI devices.

Second place was taken by Google’s home device, which connects to the Google Assistant, which eMarketer said had 23.8 per cent of the US market.

The use of these devices is growing rapidly, having leapt 128.9 per cent in the last year, with 35.6 million Americans using a device at least one time every month. When you add in the number of Americans using AI assistants on smartphones, and that number almost doubles.

Talking the way to the top

In Australia, Google has taken first-mover advantage, launching its Google Home devices earlier this year through retail channels, backed by a sizeable above-the-line advertising blitz.

Google director of marketing for Australia and New Zealand, Aisling Finch, says while the company is not releasing local sales figures, she is pleased with the usage rates of devices it has sold.

“Ultimately, that is what we care more about because that is what really speaks to the relevance and usefulness of the product,” she says.

Finch believes the rapid uptake of Google Home is driven by human desire to interact with technology in more natural ways.

“We have gone from having to interact in clunky ways with lines of code, to keyboard and mouse, and we have had a decade now of being able to interact via touch,” Finch says. “But the two areas where I see tremendous improvements are vision and voice. And they are two areas we are really seeing machine learning dramatically shifting the experience.

“Think of how that is going to change consumers’ expectations of an interaction.”

Another stark reminder of the speed of change in consumer behaviour is Google’s own finding that a full fifth of Google searches on mobile devices in the US are now voice-based. This, in turn, is likely to have significant ramification for any company that uses search engine marketing to reach customers.

In a visual search environment, people are accustomed to seeing a list of responses for any given query. But in voice-based search, that is reduced down to a single answer. Finch is quick to point out, however, that visual search is unlikely to disappear.

“That simple single response will be important where that makes sense, but when a query is more complicated or I want more information, I will still go back to some kind of visual screen,” she says.

Hence Google has created the ability for its Home unit to cast search results to a nearby connected screen.

Brands are beginning to understand the potential of the AI interface, and Google worked with numerous media companies at Home’s Australian launch to integrate content into the platform, including News Limited, the ABC, Spotify, Stan and Netflix. Finch says Google is continuing to work with brands to help them build useful and relevant experiences, and has announced a platform called Actions on Google to help third parties build apps for the Google Assistant technology.

Finch says accuracy of the Google Assistant’s voice recognition capability now exceeds 95 per cent, and the engine has been trained specifically to recognise Australian accents and local slang. She says this in turn is further raising consumer expectations of how the devices perform, and has led Google to increase its own skill set in response.

“We have hired a writer to help us with some of those delightful and fun queries that people are taking advantage of,” she says. “That is a new skill into the business we didn’t need when we weren’t interacting with so much voice.”

Whether people’s expectations of how these devices perform will translate into their broader expectations of brand interactions remains to be seen. Finch says there is much that brands can do today to provide an enhanced voice-based experience, especially if they take other contexts such as geography into account.

“Simple things, like understanding the inventory in the location relevant to that consumer - having that data set up in the business to insure that you can capitalise even on basic search,” Finch says.

But to date, much of the work done by brands has been providing access to entertainment and information services.

“They very much care about the use cases that are coming from as customer service point of view,” Finch says. “That might be bigger than the sales opportunities.”

Up next: The competitive landscape for voice-activated devices in the home; plus the very big privacy issue

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