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IFA 2019 Takes Assistants Everywhere to a New Level

September 17, 2019

The IFA (Internationale Funkausstellung) Show occurred this past week in Berlin. It is certainly Europe’s largest tech show, and some would say it has now surpassed the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES). I hit CES every year and this was my second IFA, but something radically changed this year in the world of Voice Assistants. I’m going to make up a conversation based on 2 imaginary people. For fun I’ll call them Sundar and Jeff:

Read the full blog at voicebot.ai.

Revisiting Wake Word Accuracy and Privacy

June 11, 2019

I used to blog a lot about wake words and voice triggers. Sensory pioneered this technology for voice assistants, and we evangelized the importance of not hitting buttons to speak to a voice recognizer. Then everybody caught on and the technology went into main stream use (think Alexa, OK Google, Hey Siri, etc.), and I stopped blogging about it. But I want to reopen the conversation…partly to talk about how important a GREAT wake word is to the consumer experience, and partly to congratulate my team on a recent comparison test that shows how Sensory continues to have the most accurate embedded wake word solutions.

Competitive Test Results. The comparison test was done by Vocalize.ai. Vocalize is an independent test house for voice enabled products. For a while, Sensory would contract out to them for independent testing of our latest technology updates. We have always tested in-house but found that our in-house simulations didn’t always sync up with our customers’ experience. Working with Vocalize allowed us to move from our in-house simulations to more real-world product testing. We liked Vocalize so much that we acquired them. So, now we “contract in” to them but keep their data and testing methodology and reporting uninfluenced by Sensory.

Vocalize compared two Sensory TrulyHandsfree wake word models (1MB size and 250KB size) with two external wake words (Amazon and Kitt.ai’s Snowboy), all using “Alexa” as the trigger. The results are replicable and show that Sensory’s TrulyHandsfree remains the superior solution on the market. TrulyHandsfree was better/lower on BOTH false accepting AND false rejecting. And in many cases our technology was better by a longshot! If you would like see the full report and more details on the evaluation methods, please send an email request to either Vocalize (dev@vocalize.ai) or Sensory (sales@sensory.com).

 

It’s Not Easy. There are over 20 companies today that offer on-device wake words. Probably half of these have no experience in a commercially shipping product and they never will; there are a lot of companies that just won’t be taken seriously. The other half can talk a good talk, and in the right environment they can even give a working demo. But this technology is complex, and really easy to do badly and really hard to do great. Some demos are carefully planned with the right noise in the right environment with the right person talking. Sensory has been focused on low power embedded speech for 25 years, we have 65 of the brightest minds working on the toughest challenges in embedded AI. There’s a reason that companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Samsung have turned to Sensory for our TrulyHandsfree technology. Our stuff works, and they understand how difficult it is to make this kind of technology work on-device! We are happy to provide APK’s so you can do you’re your own testing and judge for yourself! OK, enough of the sales pitch…some interesting stuff lays ahead…

It’s Really Important. Getting a wake word to work well is more important than most people realize. It’s like the front door to your house. It might be a small part of your house, but if you aren’t letting the homeowners in then that’s horrible, and if you are letting strangers in by accident that’s even worse. The name a company gives their wake word is usually the company brand name, imagine the sentiment that comes off when I say a brand name and it doesn’t work. Recently I was at a tradeshow that had a Mercedes booth. There were big signs that said “Hey Mercedes”…I walked up to the demo area and I said “Hey Mercedes” but nothing happened…the woman working there informed me that they couldn’t demo it on the show floor because it was really too noisy. I quickly pulled out my mobile phone and showed her that I could use dozens of wake words and command sets without an error in that same environment. Mercedes has spent over 100 years building up one of the best quality brand reputations in the car industry. I wonder what will happen to that reputation if their wake word doesn’t respond in noise? Even worse is when devices accidentally go off. If you have family members that listen to music above volume 7 then you already know the shock that a false alarm causes!

It’s about Privacy. Amazon, like Google and a few others seem to have pretty good wake words, but if you go into your Alexa settings you can see all of the voice data that’s been collected, and a lot of it is being collected when you weren’t intentionally talking to Alexa! You can see this performance issue in the Vocalize test report. Sensory substantially outperformed Amazon in the false reject area. This is when a person tries to speak to Alexa and she doesn’t respond. The difference is most apparent in babble noise where Sensory falsely rejected 3% and Amazon falsely rejected 10% in comparable sized models (250KB). However the False Accept difference is nothing short of AMAZING. Amazon false accepted 13 times in 24 hours of random noise. In this same time period Sensory false accepted ZERO times (on comparably sized 250KB models). How is this possible you may be wondering? Amazon “fixes” its mistakes in the cloud. Even though the device falsely accepts quite frequently, their (larger and more sophisticated) models in the cloud collect the error. Was that a Freudian slip? They correct the error…AND they COLLECT the error. In effect, they are disregarding privacy to save device cost and collect more data.

As the voice revolution continues to grow, you can bet that privacy will continue to be a hot topic. What you now understand is that wake word quality has a direct impact on both the user experience and PRIVACY! While most developers and product engineers in the CE industry are aware of wake words and the difficulty in making them work well on-device, they don’t often consider that competing wake words technologies aren’t created equally – the test results from Vocalize prove it! Sensory is more accurate AND allows more privacy!

IFA 2018 Becomes a Showcase for Amazon and Google Voice Assistants in Berlin

September 13, 2018

I thought it was funny that Google and Alexa both handed out the neck worn badge holders which nobody seemed to wear.

Google had a bunch of hired hands standing around in booths looking awkward in white jumpsuits promoting the Assistant. I spoke with a few and found a range from totally clueless to quite knowledgeable.
OTHER VOICE ASSISTANTS WERE NOTICEABLY ABSENTAlthough a half dozen other Voice Assistants exist, I saw little to no presence of Cortana, Siri, SoundHound, Baidu, Alibaba, or Tencent. There was a “Sprechen Sie Bixby? ” signage outside of the Samsung area, but that was about it.

Without doing any quantitative counting it seemed like companies are about equally throwing support at Google Assistant and Alexa. Some companies support both along with Apple’s Homekit. My gut feel is that Alexa is covering more companies but Google is getting a higher penetration with the better known and bigger brands. This probably gives Google more presence even though they have fewer companies than Amazon’s purported 3,500 brands and 20,000 devices.INNOVATION WAS NOT LIMITED TO AMAZON AND GOOGLE

There are some, but not a lot of companies that are innovating. There were a ton of smart speakers, thermostats, lights, electrical outlets and various appliances that can be controlled by assistants, but little of that rose to the level of true innovation based on where we are today. However, I did see a few new things too

  • German Auto Labs, a relatively small startup, has released HeyChris, an automotive assistant that runs embedded in a car. It’s like an Amazon Echo Dot with a screen in the center that mounts to your window. It resembles the Garmin Speak with a speaker and small LCD screen for navigation.

 

  • LG had arguably the nicest display area at the show, and although they supported the Google Assistant in some products they also had a line of of “Hey LG” washing machines, air purifiers, refrigerators and more!
  • A Motorola branded DECT (cordless) phone with Alexa for calling into Alexa devices (they swear there’s a market for this in Europe!).
  • Of course there was Bang and Olufsen with their innovative designs and most excellent margins for Google equipped smart speakers. I thought they would be bigger!

 

INFRASTRUCTURE PLAYERS ARE BETTING ON AMAZON AND GOOGLE

There’s lots of infrastructure developing 3rd-party support of Alexa, Google and custom voice interfaces. For example, a  variety of chip companies like DSPG were showing their ability to enable lower power solutions while design houses like Sugr, StreamUnlimited, and Frontier Smart Technologies can assist with hardware and software development.

OVERALL, MORE EVIDENCE OF VOICE ASSISTANT ACCELERATION

IFA showed the continuing growth and accelerated market adoption of voice assistants. It was a well organized and like CES, IFA  had separate locations that required transportation to access through transportation. Berlin, by the way is a fantastic and unique city with a very liberal feel, friendly people, the best Turkish food I’ve ever had, and very international. Parts of it even reminded me of Berkeley in the 1970s. Of course, there is a lot more presence of voice assistants today!

Todd Mozer is CEO and founder of Sensory.

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!

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.