The New Era of Voice is Upon Us - Here’s Why

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At one of its recent events, held in March, Apple revealed that the second generation of its popular Airpods will incorporate hands-free, voice-activated Siri. If connected to an iPhone or Apple Watch, users can now quickly summon their AI assistant without having to lift a finger, regardless of what they’re doing.

This was followed last week by Amazon’s announcement that it is readying its own wearable earphones which will, of course, respond to Alexa instead of Siri. These announcements opens up a new world of possibilities that, though perhaps only moderately exciting to some, was noteworthy to voice evangelists.

Could this finally be the beginning of a new era – one where, buoyed by technological developments and enhanced integrations, consumers are able to embrace voice technology as a ubiquitous utility, rather than a mere novelty?

Apple’s AI Advancements

Acquired by Apple in 2010, Siri is largely responsible for pioneering the AI movement, prompting Microsoft, Google and Samsung to launch their own AI-powered digital assistants that continue to transform the way many consumers complete routine, everyday tasks – from checking the weather to making grocery lists.

Consistent with the cautious approach Apple employs when launching new initiatives, however, Siri has been remarkably slow in allowing third-party app integrations. It wasn’t until the release of iOS 10 in September 2016 that they started allowing third-party apps to interface with Siri – but even then, it was limited to a select number of categories, such as ride booking, messaging, photo search, payments, VoIP calling and fitness.

Increased competition from the Amazon Echo and Google Home, coupled with the anticipated growth of the voice technology industry, has made it necessary, and prudent, for Apple to continually bolster Siri’s capabilities.

According to research firm IDC, the wearables market – including smartwatches as well as wireless headphones with access to voice assistants like Alexa – is projected to expand by 15.3 percent to see 198.5 million units shipped globally by the end of 2019. By 2023, IDC anticipates this number to reach 279 million, driven by the integration of voice assistants like Siri, Alexa and the Google Assistant on wearable devices, as well as enhanced features and smart home control abilities.

With numbers like these, it’s hard to deny the convenience and time saving factor afforded by voice-based communication. In an era that demands a heightened pace of living and multitasking, being able to simply speak a command into being is the ultimate luxury. A report from PwC notes that consumers see voice assistants as the smarter, faster, and easier way to perform everyday activities, with adoption primarily by younger consumers and households with children.

As voice technology becomes more sophisticated and mainstream, we’re likely to see a greater proliferation of voice-enabled applications make their way across industries, extending their reach beyond the home where they’re typically used. For instance, late last year Google launched Voice Access, an Android app that allows individuals with mobility and motor impairments to use their voice for greater control and direction.

The healthcare industry in particular is poised to be a major driver of AI-powered voice assistants. In fact, a Wall Street Journal article published this week notes that voice-enabled technology is being utilized to analyze the mental and physical health of consumers, helping to determine the warning signs of everything from heart disease to falling asleep at the wheel. It’s even being used to investigate crimes, fight fraud and vet job applicants, signaling the future ubiquity of voice assistants through a seamless integration of digital platforms and devices.

But while the use of voice commands is certainly growing, the PwC report noted above concludes that consumer awareness is rather nascent, leaving significant room for improvement in educating consumers on device capabilities and addressing privacy concerns by building trust. While many users turn to their devices to ask quick questions, check the weather, play music, etc., few feel comfortable utilizing the more advanced features, such as making a purchase or controlling other smart devices in a home. Furthermore, many are hesitant to use the technology in public, with the majority (74 percent) of consumers speaking commands only at home.   

Even with these potential barriers to adoption, AI-powered digital assistants don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Just consider this: Juniper Research predicts there will be an estimated eight billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023, an increase from roughly 2.5 billion by the end of this year. Indeed, if one thing has become increasingly apparent from Apple and Amazon’s latest announcements, it is that we’ve only just begun to enter the age of voice technology.