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Virtual Assistants coming to an Ear Near You!

January 5, 2017

Virtual handsfree assistants that you can talk to and that talk back have rapidly gained popularity. First, they arrived in mobile phones with Motorola’s MotoX that had an ‘always listening’ Moto Voice powered by Sensory’s TrulyHandsfree technology. The approach quickly spread across mobile phones and PCs to include Hey Siri, OK Google, and Hey Cortana.

Then Amazon took things to a whole new level with the Echo using Alexa. A true voice interface emerged, initially for music but quickly expanding domain coverage to include weather, Q&A, recipes, and the most common queries. On top of that, Amazon took a unique approach by enabling 3rd parties to develop “skills” that now number over 6000! These skills allow Amazon’s Echo line (with Tap, Dot) and 3rd Party Alexa equipped products (like Nucleus and Triby) to be used to control various functions, from reading heartrates on Fitbits to ordering Pizzas and controlling lights.

Until recently, handsfree assistants required a certain minimum power capability to really be always on and listening. Additionally, the hearable market segment including fitness headsets, hearing aids, stereo headsets and other Bluetooth devices needed to use touch control because of their power limitations. Also, Amazons Alexa had required WIFI communications so you could sit on your couch talking to your Echo and query Fitbit information, but you couldn’t go out on a run and ask Alexa what your heartrate was.

All this is changing now with Sensory’s VoiceGenie!

The VoiceGenie runs an embedded recognizer in a low power mode. Initially this is on a Qualcomm/CSR Bluetooth chip, but could be expanded to other platforms. Sensory has taken an SBC music decoder and intertwined a speech recognition system, so that the Bluetooth device can recognize speech while music is playing.

The VoiceGenie is on and listening for 2 keywords:
Alexa – this enables Alexa “On the Go” through a cellphone rather than requiring WiFi
VoiceGenie – this provides access to all the Bluetooth Device and Handset Device features

For example, a Bluetooth headset’s volume, pairing, battery strength, or connection status can only be controlled by the device itself, so VoiceGenie handles those controls without touching required. VoiceGenie can also read incoming callers’ names and ask the user if they want to answer or ignore. VoiceGenie can call up the phone’s assistant, like Google Assistant or Siri or Cortana, to ask by voice for a call to be made or a song to be played.
By saying Alexa, the user gets access to a mobile Alexa ‘On the Go’, so any of the Alexa skills can be utilized while out and about, whether hiking or running!

Some of the important facts behind the new VoiceGenie include:

  • VoiceGenie is a platform for VoiceAssistants to be used Handsfree on tiny devices
  • VoiceGenie enables Alexa for a whole new range of portable products
  • VoiceGenie enables a movement towards invisible assistants that are with you all the time and help you in your daily lives

This third point is perhaps the least understood, yet the most important. People want a personalized assistant that knows them, keeps their secrets safe, and helps them in their daily lives. This help can be accessing information or controlling your environment. It’s very difficult to accomplish this for privacy and power reasons in a cloud powered environment. There needs to be embedded intelligence. It needs to be low power. VoiceGenie is that low powered voice assistant.

Google Assistant vs. Amazon’s Alexa

June 15, 2016

“Credit to the team at Amazon for creating a lot of excitement in this space,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai. He made this comment during his Google I/O speech last week when introducing Google’s new voice-controlled home speaker, Google Home which offers a similar sounding description to Amazon’s Echo. Many interpreted this as a “thanks for getting it started, now we’ll take over,” kind of comment.

Google has always been somewhat marketing challenged in naming its voice assistant. Everyone knows Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cortana, and Amazon has Alexa. But what is Google’s voice assistant called? Is it Google Voice, Google Now, OK Google, Voice Actions? Even those of us in the speech industry have found Google’s branding to be confusing. Maybe they’re clearing that up now by calling their assistant “Google Assistant.” Maybe that’s the Google way of admitting it’s an assistant without admitting they were wrong by not giving it a human sounding name.

The combination of the early announcement of Google Home and Google Assistant has caused some to comment that Amazon has BIG competition at best, and at worst, Amazon’s Alexa is in BIG trouble.

Forbes called Google’s offering the Echo Killer, while Slate said it was smarter than Amazon’s Echo.

I thought I’d point out a few good reasons why Amazon is in pretty good shape:

  1. Google Home is not shipping. Google has a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue in that it needs to roll out a product that has industry support (for controlling third-party products by voice). How do you get industry partners without a product? You announce early! That was a smart move; now they just need to design it and ship it…not always an easy task.
  2. It’s about Voice Commerce. This is REALLY important. Many people think Google will own this home market because it has a better speech recognizer. Speech recognition capabilities are nice but not the end game. The value here is having a device that’s smart and trusted enough to take money out of our bank accounts and deliver us goods and services that we want when we want them. Amazon has a huge infrastructure lead here in products, reviews, shipping, and other key components of Internet commerce. Adding a convenient voice front end isn’t easy, but it’s also NOT the hardest part of enabling big revenue voice commerce systems.
  3. Amazon has far-field working and devices that always “talk back.” I admit the speech recognition is important, and Google has a lot of data, experience, and technologists in machine learning, AI, and speech recognition. But most of the Google experience is through Android and mobile-phone hardware. Where Amazon has made a mark is in far-field or longer distance recognition that really works, which is not easy to do. Speech recognition has always been about signal/noise ratios and far-field makes the task more difficult and requires acoustic echo cancellation, multiple microphones, plus various gain control and noise filtering/speech focusing approaches. Also, the Google recognizer was established around finding data through voice queries, most of such data being displayed on-screen (and often through search). The Google Home and Amazon Echo are no-screen devices. Having them intelligently talk back means more than just reading the text off a search. Google can handle this, of course, but it’s one more technical barrier that needs to be done right.
  4. Amazon has a head start and already is an industry standard. Amazon’s done a nice job with the Echo. It’s follow-on products, Tap and Dot, were intelligent offshoots. Even its Fire TV took advantage of in-house voice capabilities. The Alexa Voice Services work well and already are acting like a standard for voice control. Roughly three million Amazon devices have already sold, and I’d guess that in the next year, the number of Alexa connected devices will double through both Amazon sales and third parties using AVS. This is not to mention the tens of millions of devices on the market that can be controlled by Echo or other Amazon hardware. Amazon is pretty well entrenched!

Of course, Amazon has its challenges as well, but I’ll leave that for another blog.