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Speaking the language of the voice assistant

June 17, 2016

Hey Siri, Cortana, Google, Assistant, Alexa, BlueGenie, Hound, Galaxy, Ivee, Samantha, Jarvis, or any other voice-recognition assistant out there.

Now that Google and Apple have announced that they’ll be following Amazon into the home far-field voice assistant business, I’m wondering how many things in my home will always be on, listening for voice wakeup phrases. In addition, how will they work together (if at all). Let’s look at some possible alternatives:

Co-existence. We’re heading down a path where we as consumers will have multiple devices on and listening in our homes and each device will respond to its name when spoken to. This works well with my family; we just talk to each other, and if we need to, we use each other’s names to differentiate. I can have friends and family over or even a big party, and it doesn’t become problematic calling different people by different names.

The issue for household computer assistants all being on simultaneously is that false fires will grow in direct proportion to the number of devices on and listening. With Amazon’s Echo, I get a false fire about every other day, and Alexa does a great job of listening to what I say after the false fire and ignoring if it doesn’t seem to be an intended command. It’s actually the best performing system I’ve used and the fact that its starts playing music or talking every other week is a testament to what a good job they have done. However, interrupting my family every other week is not good enough. And if I have five always-listening devices interrupting us 10 times a month, that becomes unacceptable. And if they don’t do as good a job as Alexa, and interrupt more frequently, it becomes quite problematic.

Functional winners. Maybe each device could own a functional category. For example, all my music systems could use Alexa, my TV’s use Hi Galaxy, and all appliances are Bosch. Then I’d have less “names” to call out to and there would be some big benefits: 1) The devices using the same trigger phrase could communicate and compare what they heard to improve performance; 2) More relevant data could be collected on the specific usage models, thus further improving performance; and 3) With less names to call out, I’d have fewer false fires. Of course, this would force me as a consumer to decide on certain brands to stick to in certain categories.

Winner take all. Amazon is adopting a multi-pronged strategy of developing its own products (Echo, Dot, Tap, etc.) and also letting its products control other products. In addition, Amazon is offering the backend Alexa voice service to independent product developers. It’s unclear whether competitors will follow suit, but one thing is clear—the big guys want to own the home, not share it.

Amazon has a nice lead as it gets other products to be controlled by Echo. The company even launched an investment fund to spur more startups writing to Alexa. Consumers might choose an assistant we like (and we think performs well) and just stick with that across the household. The more we share with that assistant, the better it knows us, and the better it serves us. This knowledge base could carry across products and make our lives easier.

Just Talk. In the “co-existence” case previously mentioned, there six people in my household, so it can be a busy place. But when I speak to someone, I don’t always start with their name. In fact, I usually don’t. If there’s just one other person in the room, it’s obvious who I’m speaking to. If there are multiple people in the room, I tend to look at or gesture toward the person I’m addressing. This is more natural than speaking their name.

An “always listening” device should have other sensors to know things like how many people are in the room, where they’re standing and looking at, how they’re gesturing, and so on. These are the subconscious cues humans use to know who is talking to us, and our devices would be smarter and more capable if they could do it.

I Love Robots!

July 31, 2014

Yeah, I grew up in an era of watching robots on TV and in the movies, and reading about them in books and comic strips. They were and still are a part of our media culture. My goal in life has been to live in a Jetsons-like world! Well, not really, but I do have a film slide of Rosie the Maid up on my wall, and the mod, Googie, mid-century future style from the Jetsons is definitely my style.

It’s been fun at Sensory to be part of a robot revolution in toys. We have put speech technologies into over 50 robotic creatures from dolls to strange new alien things like Furby. When Aibo first shipped, we had half a dozen companies come to us with awesome designs for new low cost robotic dogs that could respond to their masters’ voices!

Here’s a fun realistic looking robot dog – Scamps.  Sensory was in this a few years ago, and it seems to be enjoying a huge comeback in 2014.

More recently we were in Intel’s “Jarvis” headset…When we first created the Jarvis trigger, I didn’t get the name. Then I saw the movie Ironman! :-)

Sensory has designed a lot of robotic technologies beyond speech recognition and synthesis. We have platforms such as sound sourcing, where a robot with two mics can locate the speaker through triangulation. We have sonic networking as a low cost wireless protocol so robots can take commands from TV commercials or YouTube videos or even other robots. We even have made lip synchronization approaches and pitch detection technologies so robots can mimic their owners in a fun and playful way.

The rise of robotic vacuum and window cleaners and non-toy robotic applications is really Neato (yeah that’s a pun!) Of course there have been a lot of beer delivery home robots over the years too, but none of them are making it into the mainstream.

The magic however has not yet really hit, because I want the fun, playfulness, and interactivity of the toys but with utility added in, so it really is more like the Jetsons or Lost in Space.

Jibo is a new robot that might foot this bill, and it seems that I’m not the only one that likes the concept,  as it is getting pretty close to being one of the Top 10 funded Indiegogo campaigns of all time!