Will.i.am Lands Deal for Omega Voice Assistant with Middle Eastern Retailer Majid Al Futtaim

BRET KINSELLA on February 14, 2019 at 10:10 am

Will.i.am surprised many when his I.AM+ business landed $117 million in funding led by Salesforce Ventures in November 2017. Eleven months later his company debuted the Omega AI-based assistant at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference that showed off capabilities of an enterprise voice assistant and even a feature that mimicked Google Duplex. On Sunday, retailer Majid Al Futtaim announced that it would roll out Omega in English and Arabic for its Carrefour and VOX Cinemas brands in the Middle East. A video interview with Will.i.am by Arabian Business focused on his announcement and how the company would be different than competitors.

In the interview, Will.i.am states that the company has been building its technology for six years and “had a couple of pivots.” He also talks about the difference between disruption and transformation and data being the new oil, but overall it does not offer a clear vision for how Omega will make a difference for consumers or businesses.

OMEGA IS AN AMBITIOUS VOICE ASSISTANT

The events of this week follows an earlier announcement of a partnership between I.AM+ and Majid Al Futtaim during the World Economic Forum in January 2019. This initiative will reflect I.AM+’s first production rollout of its Omega voice assistant. The announcement states:

“Consumers will be able to utilise Omega’s voice computing technology which understands context and is proactive in anticipating needs based on historical data. The technology is designed to support simultaneous multi-tasking use that combines features extracted from different modalities such as text, audio and image, allowing for seamless fusion of voice and user interface across multiple devices.”

That’s a lot of industry jargon. However, if we parse the language, it is clearly an ambitious voice assistant implementation. In addition to voice interaction, Omega will support text-based input and multimodal outputs that include images and audio. The statement also claims that Omega will take into account “context” in its interactions and be “proactive.” Context is a signal that voice assistants use infrequently today. Alexa and Google Assistant will understand context such as whether the device has a display and consider your order history for shopping, but contextual interactions are limited. The “proactive” concept where a voice assistant does something for a user by anticipating their needs before being asked is available on an even more limited basis by consumer voice assistants. Google Assistant’s “New Day” screen starts down that path, but provides only the most basic information that can be gleaned from your calendar, location, and routine behaviors.

WHITE LABEL VOICE ASSISTANT MARKET IS COMPETITIVE

Omega seems to be heading down the path of becoming a white-label voice assistant that has the tools and infrastructure in place and will allow enterprises to customize and brand it for their needs. This puts Omega in direct competition with companies such as SoundHound and Nuance. The white-label voice assistant market is likely to get more competitive over the next two years so it was important for I.AM+ to land a customer in 2019. However, a partnership between I.AM+ and Majid Al Futtaim does present a near-term opportunity for Omega to become a general purpose voice assistant alternative to Alexa and Google Assistant in the Arab-speaking region.

ARMANDO CERON