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Voice assistant battles, part three: The challenges

August 13, 2018

It’s not easy to be a retailer today when more and more people are turning to Amazon for shopping. And why not shop online? Ordering is convenient with features such as ratings. Delivery is fast and cheap, and returns are easy and free – if you are Prime member! In April 2018 Bezos reported there are more than 100 million Prime members in the world, and the majority of US households are Prime members. Walmart and Google have partnered in an ecommerce play to compete with Amazon, but Walmart is just dancing with the devil. Google will use the partnership to gather data and invest more in their internal ecommerce and shopping experiences. Walmart isn’t relaxing, and is aggressively pursuing ecommerce and AI initiatives through acquisitions, and its Store #8 that acts as an incubator for AI companies and internal initiatives. Question: why does Facebook have a Building 8 and Walmart have a Store 8 for skunkworks projects?

It’s not just the retailers that are under pressure, though. If you make consumer electronics it’s getting more challenging too. Google controls the Android eco-system and is pumping a lot of money into centralizing and hiring around their hardware development efforts. Google is competing against the mobile phones of Samsung, Huawei, LG, Oppo, Vivo, and other users of their Android OS. And Amazon is happy to sell other people’s hardware online (OK, not Google, but others), but they take a nice commission on those sales, and if it’s a hit product they find ways to make more money through Amazon’s in house brands and warehousing, and potentially even making the product themselves. The Alexa fund has financed companies that created Alexa based hardware products that Amazon ended up competing against with in-house developments,and when Amazon sells Alexa products it doesn’t need to make a big profit (as described in part one). And Apple… well, they have a history of extracting money from anyone that wants to play in their eco-system too. This is business and there’s a very good reason that Google, Amazon, Apple, and other giants are giants. They know how to make money on everything they do. They are tough to compete with. The “free” stuff consumers get (and we do get a lot!) isn’t really free. We are trading our data and personal information for it.

So retailers have it tough (and assistants will make it even tougher), service providers have it tough (and assistants with service offerings make it even tougher), and consumer electronic companies have it tough. But the toughest situation is for the speaker companies. The market for speakers is exploding driven by the demand for “smart” speakers. Markets and Markets research report the current smart speaker market at over $2.6B and growing at over 34% a year. Seems like that would be a sweet market to be in, but a lot of that growth is eating away at the traditional speaker market. So a speaker company gets faced with a few alternatives:

  1. Partner with voice assistants within the eco-system of their biggest competitors (Google, Apple, Amazon, etc.). This would give all the data collected to their competitors and put them at the mercy of their competitors systems.
  2. Develop and support an in house solution which could cost WAY too much to maintain, or
  3. Use a 3rd party solution which is likely to cost a lot more and underperform compared to the big guys that are pumping billions of dollars each year into enhancing their AI offerings.

Many are choosing option 1 only to find that their sales are poor because of better quality lower priced offering from Google and Amazon. A company like Sonos, who is a leader in high quality wifi speakers has chosen option 1 with a twist where they are trying to support Google and Amazon and Apple. Their recent IPO filing highlights the challenges well:

”Our current agreement with Amazon allows Amazon to disable the Alexa integration in our Sonos One and Sonos Beam products with limited notice. As such, it is possible that Amazon, which sells products that compete with ours, may on limited notice disable the integration, which would cause our Sonos One or Sonos Beam products to lose their voice-enabled functionality. Amazon could also begin charging us for this integration which would harm our operating results.”

They further highlighted that their lack of service integrations could be a challenge should Google, Amazon or others offer discounting (which is already happening): “Many of these partners may subsidize these prices and seek to monetize their customers through the sale of additional services rather than the speakers themselves,” the company said. “Our business model, by contrast, is dependent on the sale of our speakers. Should we be forced to lower the price of our products in order to compete on a price basis, our operating results could be harmed.” Looking at Sono’s financials you can see their margins already starting to erode.

Some companies have attempted #2 above by bringing out in house Assistants using open-source speech recognizers like Kaldi. This might save the cost of deploying third party solutions but it requires substantial in house efforts, and is ultimately fraught with the same challenges as #3 above which is that it’s really hard to compete against companies approaching a trillion dollar market capitalization when these companies see AI and voice assistants as strategically important and are investing that way.

Retailers, Consumer OEMs, and Service providers all have a big challenge. I run a small company called Sensory. We develop AI technologies, and companies like Google, Amazon, Samsung, Microsoft, Apple, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, etc. are our customers AND our biggest competitors. My strategy? Move fast, innovate, and move on. I can’t compete head to head with these companies, but when I come out with solutions that they need BEFORE they have it in house, I get a 1-3 year window to sell to them before they switch to an in house replacement. That’s not bad for a small company like Sensory. For a bigger company like a Sonos or a Comcast, they could deploy the same general strategy to set up fast moving innovation pieces that allow them to stay ahead of the game. This appears to be the exact strategy that Walmart is taking on with Store 8 to not be left behind! Without doubt, it’s very tough competing in a world of giants that have no boundaries in their pursuits and ambitions!

Apple is Getting Sirious – $1 Trillion is Not the Endgame

August 6, 2018

Apple introduced Siri in 2011 and my world changed. I was running Sensory back then as I am today and suddenly every company wanted speech recognition. Sensory was there to sell it! Steve Jobs, a notorious nay-sayer on speech recognition, had finally given speech recognition the thumbs up. Every consumer electronics company noticed and decided the time had come. Sensory’s sales shot up for a few years driven by this sudden confidence in speech recognition as a user interface for consumer electronics.

Fast forward to today and Apple has just become the first and only trillion dollar US company in terms of market capitalization. One trillion dollars is an arbitrary round number with a lot of zeroes, but it is psychologically very important. It was winning a race. It was a race between Cook, Bezos, the Google/Alphabet Crew and others that most of the contestants would say doesn’t really matter and that they weren’t in the race. But, they were and they all wanted to win. Without question it was quarterly financial results that caused Apple to reach the magic number and beat Amazon, Google and Microsoft to the trillion dollar value spot. I wouldn’t argue that Siri got them there, but I would argue that Siri didn’t stop them, and this is important.

SIRI WAS FIRST, BUT QUICKLY LOST THE VOICE LEAD TO RIVALS
Siri has had a bit of a mixed history. It was the first voice assistant to come out in mobile phones but in spite of Apple’s superior marketing abilities, the Google Assistant (or whatever naming convention was being used as it never seemed totally clear) quickly surpassed Siri on most key metrics of quality and performance. The Siri team went through turnover and got stuck in a world of rule based natural language understanding when the state of the art turned to deep learning and data-based approaches.

Then in 2014 Amazon introduced the Echo smart speaker with Alexa and beat Apple and others into the home with a useable voice assistant. Alexa came out strong and got stronger quickly. Amazon amassed over 5,000 people into what is likely the largest speech recognition team in the world. Google got punched but wasn’t knocked out. Its AI team kept growing and Google had a very strong reputation in academia as hiring the best and brightest machine learning and AI folks out of PhD programs. By 2016, Google had introduced its own smart speaker, and by CES 2018, Google made a VERY strong marketing statement that it was still in the game.

APPLE FOCUSED ELSEWHERE
All the while Apple stayed relatively quiet. Drifting further behind in accuracy, utility, use-ability, integration and now smart speakers, Siri took its time. The HomePod speaker had a series of delays and when introduced in Q1 2018 was largely criticized because of the relatively poor performance of Siri and lack of compatibility. The huge investment Bezos made in Alexa might have been hard for Apple to rationalize in a post Jobs era run by a smart operating guy driven by the numbers more than by a passion or vision. Or, perhaps Tim Cook knew that he had time to get it right, as the Apple eco-system was captive and not running away because of poor Siri performance. Maybe they were waiting for their services ecosystem to really kick in before cranking up the power of Siri. For whatever reason, Siri was largely viewed as the first out of the gates but well behind the pack in Q2 2018.

AI ASSISTANTS DRIVE CONSUMER LOCK-IN
Fast forward to now and I’ll say why I think things are changing and why I said that Siri didn’t stop Apple from being first to $1T. But first, let me diverge to dwell on the importance of an AI Assistant to Apple and others. First off, it’s pretty easy to see the importance the industry puts on AI assistants. Any time I watch advertising spots, I see some of the most expensive commercials ever produced with the biggest named stars promoting “Hey Google”, “Hey Siri”, and “Alexa” (and occasionally Bixby or Cortana too!).

The assistants aren’t sold and so they don’t directly make money but they can be used as purchasing agents (where Amazon makes a lot of money), advertising agents (where Google makes its money), access to entertainment services (where all the big guys make money) and as a user experience for consumer electronics (where Apple makes a lot of money). The general thinking is that the more an assistant is used, the more it learns about the user, the better it serves the user, and the more the user is locked in! So winning in the AI Assistant game is HUGELY important and recent changes at Apple show that Siri is quickly coming up in the rankings and could have more momentum right now than in its entire history. That’s why Siri didn’t stop Apple from reaching $1T.

SIRI ON THE RISE
Let me highlight three recent pieces of news that suggest Siri is now headed in the right direction.

  • HomePod Sales: Apple HomePod sales just reached $1B. Not a shabby business given the high margins Apple typically gets. According to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) the HomePod marketshare doubled over the past quarter. What’s interesting is that the early reviews stated that Siri’s poor performance and lack of compatibility was dragging down HomePod sales. However, CIRP reported the biggest problem today is price and that at $349 it is hundreds of dollars more than competitors.
  • Loup Ventures analysis:
    Loup Ventures does an annual Assistant assessment. Several companies do this sort of thing and the traditional and general rankings have previously showed Google as best, Cortana and Alexa not far behind, and Siri somewhat behind the pack. Loup’s most recent analyses showed something different. Siri is shown to have the most improvement (from April 2017 to July 2018) in both “answered correctly” and “understood query”, and has surpassed Cortana and Alexa in both categories.


Of particular note is the categories of correct analysis. Siri substantially outperformed Google Assistant in the “command” category which is arguable the most important category for a consumer electronics manufacturer that wants to improve user experience.

 

  • Apple Reorganization:In April 2018 Apple hired John Giannandrea. JG is a silicon valley luminary and not only played roles with early pioneers like General Magic and Netscape, but he was a founder of TellMe Networks which still holds the record for the highest valued acquisition in the speech recognition space. Microsoft paid $800 million in a 2007 acquisition. JG didn’t retire and rest on his laurels. He joined Google as an Engineering VP and in 2016 was promoted to SVP Search (yeah I mean all of search as in “Google that”) including heading up all artificial intelligence and machine learning within Google. Business Insider called him “The most sought after free agent in Silicon Valley.” He reports directly to Tim Cook. In July 2018, a reorg was announced that brings Siri and all machine learning under one roof…under JG. Siri has bounced around under a few top executives. With JG on board and Bill Stasior (VP Siri) staying on and now reporting into JG, Siri has a bright future.

It may have taken a while but Apple seems serious. It’s nice to have a pioneer in the space not stay down for the count!

Voice assistant battles, part two: The strategic importance

August 6, 2018

Here’s the basic motivation that I see in creating Voice Assistants…Build a cross platform user experience that makes it easy for consumers to interact, control and request things through their assistant. This will ease adoption and bring more power to consumers who will use the products more and in doing so create more data for the cloud providers. This “data” will include all sorts of preferences, requests, searches, purchases, and will allow the assistants to learn more and more about the users. The more the assistant knows about any given user, the BETTER the assistant can help the user in providing services such as entertainment and assisting with purchases (e.g. offering special deals on things the consumer might want). Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail:

1. Owning the cross platform user experience and collecting user data to make a better Voice Assistants. ​
For thousands of years consumers interacted with products by touch. Squeezing, pressing, turning, and switching were all the standard means of controlling. The dawn of electronics really didn’t change this and mechanical touch systems became augmented with electrical touch mechanisms. Devices got smarter and had more capabilities but the means to access these capabilities got more confusing with more complicated interfaces and a more difficult user experience. As new sensory technologies began to be deployed (such as gesture, voice, pressure sensors, etc.) companies like Apple emerged as consumer electronics leaders because of their ability to package consumer electronics in a more user friendly manner. With the arrival of Siri on the iPhone and Alexa in the home, voice first user experiences are driving the ease of use and naturalness of interacting with consumer products. Today we find companies like Google and Amazon investing heavily into their hardware businesses and using their Assistants as a means to improve and control the user experience.

Owning the user experience on a single device is not good enough. The goal of each of these voice assistants is to be your personal assistant across devices. On your phone, in your home, in your car, wherever you may go. This is why we see Alexa and Google and Siri all battling for, as an example, a position in automotive. Your assistant wants to be the place you turn for consistent help. In doing so it can learn more about your behaviors…where you go, what you buy, what you are interested in, who you talk to, and what your history is. This isn’t just scary big brother stuff. It’s quite practical. If you have multiple assistants for different things, they may each think of you and know you differently, thereby having a less complete picture. It’s really best for the consumer to have one assistant that knows you best.

For example, let’s take the simple case of finding food when I’m hungry. I might say “I’m hungry.” Then the assistant’s response would be much more helpful the more it knows about me. Does it know I’m a vegetarian? Does it know where I’m located, or whether I am walking or driving? Maybe it knows I’m home and what’s in my refrigerator, and can suggest a recipe…does it know my food/taste preferences? How about cost preferences? Does it have the history of what I have eaten recently, and knows how much variety I’d like? Maybe it should tell me something like “Your wife is at Whole Foods, would you like me to text her a request or call her for you?” It’s easy to see how these voice assistants could really be quite helpful the more it knows about you. But with multiple assistants in different products and locations, it wouldn’t be as complete. In this example it might know I’m home, but NOT know what’s in my fridge. Or it might know what’s in the fridge and know I’m home but NOT know my wife is currently shopping at Whole Foods, etc.

The more I use my assistant across more devices in more situations and over more time, the more data it could gather and the better it should get at servicing my needs and assisting me! It’s easy to see that once it knows me well and is helping me with this knowledge it will get VERY sticky and become difficult to get me to switch to a new assistant that doesn’t know me as well.

2. Entertainment and other service package sales.
Alexa came onto the scene in 2014 with one very special domain – Music. Amazon chose to do one thing really well, and that was make a speaker that could accept voice commands for playing songs, albums, bands, radio. Not long after that Alexa added new domains and moved into new platforms like Fire TV and the Fire stick controller. It’s no coincidence that an Amazon Music service and Amazon TV services both exist and you can wrap even more services into an Amazon Prime membership. When Assistants don’t support Spotify well, there are a lot of complaints. And it’s no surprise that Spotify has been reported to be developing their own assistant and speaker. In fact Comcast has their own voice control remotes. There’s a very close tie between the voice assistants and the services that they bring. Apple is restrictive in what Siri will allow you to listen for. They want to keep you within their eco-system where they make more money. (Maybe it’s this locked in eco-system that has given Apple a more relaxed schedule in improving Siri?). Amazon and Google are really not that different, although they may have different means of leading us to the services they want us to use, they still can influence our choices for media. Spotify has over 70M subscribers (20M paying), over 5 Billion in revenues and recently went public with about a $30B market cap…and Apple Music just overtook Spotify in terms of paying subscribers. Music streaming has turned the music industry into a growth business again. The market for video services is even bigger, and Amazon is one of the top content producers of video! Your assistant will have a lot of influence on the services you choose and how accessible they are. This is one reason why voice assistant providers might be willing to lose money in getting the assistants out to the market, so they can make more money on services. The battle of Voice Assistants is really a battle of who controls your media and your purchases!

3. Selling and recommending products to consumers
The biggest business in the world is selling products. It’s helped make Amazon, Google and Apple the giants that they are today. Google makes the money on advertising, which is an indirect form of selling products. What if your assistant knew what you needed whenever you needed it? It would uproot the entire advertising industry. Amazon has the ability to pull this off. They have the world’s largest online store, they know our purchase histories, they have an awesome rating system that really works, and they have Alexa listening everywhere willing to take our orders. Because assistants use a voice interface, there will be a much more serial approach to making recommendations and selling me things. For example, if I do a text search on a device for nearby vegan restaurants, I see a map with a whole lot of choices and long list of options. Typically these options could include side bars of advertising or “sponsored” restaurants first in the listing, but I’m supplied a long list. If I do a voice search on a smart speaker with no display, it will be awkward to give me more than a few results…and I’ll bet the results we hear will become the “sponsored” restaurants and products.

It would be really obnoxious if Alexa or Siri or Cortana or Google Assistant suddenly suggested I buy something that I wasn’t interested in, but what if it knew what I needed? For example, it could track vitamin usage and ask if I want more before they run out, or it could know how frequently I wear out my shoes, and recommend a sale for my brand and my size, when I really needed them. The more my assistant knows me the better it can “advertise” and sell me in a way that’s NOT obnoxious but really helpful. And of course making extra money in the process!

Voice Assistant Battles, part one

July 25, 2018

I have spoken on a lot of “voice” oriented shows over the years, and it has been disappointing that there hasn’t been more discussion about the competition in the industry and what is driving the huge investments we see today. Because companies like Amazon and Google participate in and sponsor these shows, there is a tendency to avoid the more controversial aspects of the industry. I wrote this blog to share some of my thoughts on what is driving the competition, why the voice assistant space is so strategically important to companies, and some of the challenges resulting from the voice assistant battles

In September of 2017 it was widely reported that Amazon had over 5000 employees working on Alexa with more than 1000 more to be hired. To use a nice round and conservative number, let’s assume an average Alexa employee’s fully weighted cost to Amazon is $200K. With about 6,000 employees on the Alexa team today, that would mean a $1.2 billion investment. Of course, some of this is recouped by the Echo’s and Dot’s bringing in profits, but when you consider that Dots sell for $30-$50 and Echos at $80-$100, it’s hard to imagine a high enough profit to justify the investment through hardware sales. For example, if Amazon can sell 30 million Alexa devices and make an average of $30 per unit profit, that only covers 75% of the cost of the conservative $1.2 billion investment.

Other evidence supporting the huge investments being made in voice assistants is the battle in advertising. Probably the most talked about thing at 2018’s CES show was the enormous position Google took in advertising the Google Assistant. In fact, if you watch any of the most expensive advertising slots on TV (SuperBowl, NBA finals, World Cup, etc.) you will see a preponderance of advertisements with known actors and athletes saying “Hey Google,” “Alexa,” or, “Hey Siri.” (Being in the wakeword business, I particularly like the Kevin Durant “Yo Google” ad!)

And it’s not just the US giants that are investing big into assistants: Docomo, Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, Naver, and other large international players are developing their own or working with 3rd party assistants.

So what is driving this huge investment companies are making? It’s a multitude of factors including:

  1. Owning the cross platform user experience and collecting user data
  2. Entertainment and other service package sales
  3. Selling and recommending products to consumers

In my next blog, I’ll discuss these three factors in more detail, and in a final blog on this topic I will discuss the challenges being faced by consumer OEMs and service providers that must play in the voice assistant game to not lose out to service and hardware competition from Apple, Amazon, Google, and others.

Smart speakers coming from all over

October 12, 2017

Amazon, Google, Sonos, and LINE all introduced smart speakers within a few weeks of each other. Here’s my quick take and commentary on those announcements.Amazon now has the new Echo, the old Echo, the Echo Plus, Spot, Dot, Show, and Look. The company is improving quality, adding incremental features, lowering cost, and seemingly expanding its leadership position. They make great products for consumers, have a very strong eco-system, and make very tough products to compete with for both their competitors and their many platform partners that use Alexa. Seems that their branding strategy is to use short three- or four-letter names that have Os. The biggest thing that was missing was speaker identification to know who’s talking to it. Interestingly, Amazon just added that capability.

Google execs wore black shirts and jeans in a very ironic-seeming Steve Jobs fashion. They attacked the Amazon Dot with their Mini, and announced the Max to compete with the quality expectations of Sonos and Apple. I didn’t find much innovation in the product line or in their dress, but I’d still rank the Google Assistant as the most capable assistant I’ve used. Of course, Google got caught stealing data, so it makes sense they have more knowledge about us and can make a better assistant.

Sonos invented the Wi-Fi speaker market and has always been known for quality. They announced the Sonos One at a surprisingly aggressive $199 price point. Their unique play is to support Alexa, Assistant, and Siri, starting first with Alexa. Now this would put price pressure on Apple’s planned $349 HomePod, but my guess is that Apple will aggressively sell this into its captive, and demographically wealthy market before they allow Sonos to incorporate Siri. Like Apple, Sonos will have a nice edge in being able to sell into its existing customer base who will certainly want the added convenience and capability of voice control, with their choice of assistant.

American readers might be familiar with LINE, but the company offers a hugely popular communications app that’s been downloaded by about a billion people. They’re big in Japan and owned by Naver, an even bigger Korean company that’s also working on a smart speaker.

Most notable about LINE (besides the unique looking speaker that resembles a cone with the top cut off) is that it appears that they’re not only beating Amazon, Google, Apple, and Sonos to Japan, but they’re also getting there before the Japanese giants like Docomo, Sony, Sharp, and Softbank. And all of these companies are making smart speakers.

Then, there are the Chinese giants who are all making smart speakers, and the old-school speaker companies who are trying to get into the game. It’s going to be crowded very quickly, and I’m very excited to see quality going up and costs staying low.

Untethering virtual assistants from Wi-Fi

February 1, 2017

The hands-free personal assistant that you can wake on voice and talk to naturally has significantly gained popularity the last couple of years. This kind of technology made its debut not all that long ago as a feature of Motorola’s MotoX, a smartphone that had always-listening Moto Voice technology powered by Sensory’s TrulyHandsfree technology. Since then, the always-listening digital assistant quickly spread across mobile phones and PCs from several different brands, making phrases like, “Hey Siri,” “Okay Google,” and, “Hey Cortana,” commonplace.

Then, out of nowhere, Amazon successfully tried its hand at the personal assistant with the Echo, sporting a true natural language voice interface and Alexa cloud-based AI. It was initially marketed for music, but quickly expanded domain coverage to include weather, Q&A, recipes, and the ability to answer common questions. On top of that, Amazon also opened its platform up to third-party developers, allowing them to proliferate the skill sets available on the Alexa platform, with now more than 10,000 skills accessible to users. These skills allow Amazon’s Echo, Tap, and Dot, as well as the several new third-party Alexa-equipped products like Nucleus and Triby, to be used to access and control various IoT functions, from reading heart rates on Fitbits to ordering pizzas and controlling lights within the home.

Until recently, always-listening, hands-free assistants required a certain minimum power capability, restricting form factors to table top speakers or appliance devices that had to either be plugged in to an outlet or have a large battery. Also, Amazon’s Echo, Tap, and Dot all required a Wi-Fi connection for communicating with the Alexa AI engine to make use of its available skills. Unfortunately, this meant you were restricted to using Alexa within your home or Wif-Fi network. If you wanted to go on a run, the only way to ask Alexa for your step count or heart rate was to wait until you got back home.

This is changing now with technology like Sensory’s VoiceGenie, an always-listening embedded speech recognizer for wearables and hearables that runs in a low power mode on a Qualcomm/CSR Bluetooth chip. The solution takes a session border controller (SBC) music decoder and intertwines it with a speech recognition system so that while music is playing and the decoder is in-use, VoiceGenie is on and actively listening, allowing the Bluetooth device to listen for two keywords:

  • “VoiceGenie,” which provides access to all the Bluetooth device’s and connected handset’s features.
  • “Alexa,” which enables Alexa through a smartphone, and doesn’t require Wi-Fi.

To give an example of how this works, a Bluetooth headset’s volume, pairing process, battery strength, or connection status can only be controlled or monitored through the device itself, so VoiceGenie handles those controls with no touching required. VoiceGenie can also read the incoming caller’s name and ask the user if they want to answer or ignore. Additionally, VoiceGenie can call up the phone’s assistant like Google Assistant, Siri, or Cortana, to ask by voice for a call to be made or a song to be played. By saying, “Alexa,” the user can access the Alexa service directly from their Bluetooth headsets while out and about, using their smartphone as the connection to the Alexa cloud.

Today’s consumer wants a personalized assistant that knows them, is convenient to use, keeps their secrets safe, and helps them in their daily lives. This help can be accessing information, getting answers to questions or intelligently controlling your home environment. It’s very difficult to accomplish this for privacy and power reasons solely using cloud-based AI technology. There needs to be embedded intelligence on devices, and it needs to run at low power. A low-power embedded voice assistant that adds an intelligent voice interface to portable and wearable devices, while also adding Alexa functionality to them, can address those needs.

OK, Amazon!

May 4, 2015

I was at the Mobile Voice Conference last week and was on a keynote panel with Adam Cheyer (Siri, Viv, etc.) and Phil Gray (Interactions) with Bill Meisel moderating. One of Bills questions was about the best speech products, and of course there was a lot of banter about Siri, Cortana, and Voice Actions (or GoogleNow as it’s often referred to). When it was my turn to chime in I spoke about Amazon’s Echo, and heaped lots of praise on it. I had done a bit of testing on it before the conference but I didn’t own one. I decided to buy one from Ebay since Amazon didn’t seem to ever get around to selling me one. It arrived yesterday.

Here are some miscellaneous thoughts:

  • Echo is a fantastic product! Not so much because of what it is today but for the platform it’s creating for tomorrow. I see it as every bit as revolutionary as Siri.
  • The naming is really confusing. You call it Alexa but the product is Echo. I suspect this isn’t the blunder that Google made (VoiceActions, GoogleNow, GoogleVoice, etc.), but more an indication that they are thinking of Echo as the product and Alexa as the personality, and that new products will ship with the same personality over time. This makes sense!
  • Setup was really nice and easy, the music content integration/access is awesome, the music quality could be a bit better but is useable; there’s lots of other stuff that normal reviewers will talk about…But I’m not a “normal” reviewer because I have been working with speech recognition consumer electronics for over 20 years, and my kids have grown up using voice products, so I’ll focus on speech…
  • My 11 year old son, Sam, is pretty used to me bringing home voice products, and is often enthusiastic (he insisted on taking my Vocca voice controlled light to keep in his room earlier this year). Sam watched me unpack it and immediately got the hang of it and used it to get stats on sports figures and play songs he likes. Sam wants one for his birthday! Amazon must have included some kids voice modeling in their data because it worked pretty well with his voice (unlike the Xbox when it first shipped, which I found particularly ironic since Xbox was targeting kids).
  • The Alexa trigger works VERY well. They have implemented beamforming and echo cancellation in a very state of the art implementation. The biggest issue is that it’s a very bandwidth intensive approach and is not low power. Green is in! That could be why its plug-in/AC only and not battery powered. Noise near the speaker definitely hurts performance as does distance, but it absolutely represents a new dimension in voice usability from a distance and unlike with the Xbox, you can move anywhere around it, and aren’t forced to be in a stationary position (thanks to their 7 mics, which surely must be overkill!)
  • The voice recognition in generally is good, but like all of the better engines today (Google, Siri, Cortana, and even Sensory’s TrulyNatural) it needs to get better. We did have a number of problems where Alexa got confused. Also, Alexa doesn’t appear to have memory of past events, which I expect will improve with upgrades. I tried playing the band Cake (a short word, making it more difficult) and it took about 4 attempts until it said “Would you like me to play Cake?” Then I made the mistake of trying “uh-huh” instead of “yes” and I had to start all over again!
  • My FAVORITE thing about the recognizer is that it does ignore things very nicely. It’s very hard to know when to respond and when not to. The Voice Assistants (Google, Siri, Cortana) seem to always defer to web searches and say things like “It’s too noisy” no matter what I do, and I thought Echo was good at deciding not to respond sometimes.

OK, Amazon… here’s my free advice (admittedly self-serving but nevertheless accurate):

  • You need to know who is talking and build models of their voices and remember who they are and what their preferences are. Sensory has the BEST embedded speaker identification/verification engine in the world, and it’s embedded so you don’t need to send a bunch of personal data into the cloud. Check out TrulySecure!
  • In fact, if you added a camera to Alexa, it too could be used for many vision features, including face authentication.
  • Make it battery powered and portable! To do this, you’d need an equally good embedded trigger technology that runs at low power – Check out TrulyHandsfree!
  • If it’s going to be portable, then it needs to work if even when not connected to the Internet. For this, you’d need an amazing large vocabulary embedded speech engine. Did I tell you about TrulyNatural?
  • Of course, the hope is that the product-line will quickly expand and as a result, you will then add various sensors, microphones, cameras, wheels, etc.; and at the same time, you will also want to develop lower cost versions that don’t have all the mics and expensive processing. You are first to market and that’s a big edge. A lot of companies are trying to follow you. You need to expand the product-line quickly, learning from Alexa. Too many big companies have NIH syndrome… don’t be like them! Look for partnering opportunities with 3rd parties who can help your products succeed – Like Sensory! ;-)