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Will lockdown help voice tech show what it's really made of?

15 Apr 2020  |  Marek Wrobel 
Will lockdown help voice tech show what it's really made of?

From its potential as a health diagnostic tool, to simply helping with loneliness, voice technology has reached new heights during the coronavirus pandemic. Marek Wrobel wonders if it will change things forever

When I think about voice technology, I often think about Amara’s Law. Coined by Roy Amara, a Stanford University computer scientist and a long-time head of The Institute for the Future, the law states: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”. It’s hard to find a better real-life example of Amara’s Law than voice technology.

In recent years, hype around voice has been gradually building up, fuelled by headlines announcing the imminent advent of v-commerce and dubious stats predicting 50% of all internet searches being voice-based. Despite some interesting case studies, I will risk saying that none of these big predictions have come to fruition and the initial hype has – hopefully – died down.

However, at the same time, the adoption of smart speakers is growing steadily, and voice technology is slowly but surely becoming embedded in our lives.

This is before you consider the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown, which is resulting in us engaging with voice technology more than usual. In South Korea, the number of conversations people are having with voice assistants has jumped by nearly 40%. Could this be the time when we see how voice technology can make a meaningful difference to our lives, now and in years to come?

Voice and digital health

The outbreak has put a massive strain on every level of our health system. One of the biggest changes has been the phasing out of in-person consultations in order to stop the spread of the virus. While the NHS is rapidly adopting digital heath solutions, voice assistants are also proving useful.

Leading voice assistants such as Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri can now provide information about Covid-19. However, in the US, both Siri and Alexa go a step further and are able to help with diagnosis of the virus. Some start-ups are looking into ways of detecting coronavirus by analysing the sound of one’s voice.

While the method remains unproven, researchers have been exploring the potential of voice as a diagnostic tool for quite some time - from spotting early signs of dementia or Parkinson’s disease through to detecting cardiac arrest.

The ability of voice assistants to screen people both actively and passively could be a game-changer for medical and insurance companies.

Voice and reducing loneliness

The elderly are considered more vulnerable to coronavirus, and have been advised to isolate for a period lasting up to 12 weeks. Sadly, there was a ‘loneliness epidemic’ amongst the older generation long before the outbreak. Last year, Age UK reported that nearly half of people age 65 and older surveyed in the United Kingdom admit that they consider the television as their main form of company. Could voice technology help in this situation?

Deloitte has reported that the pace of adoption of smart speakers is the fastest amongst over 55s. With voice assistants offering an opportunity to have a conversation at any time, and no need to type or read text on small screens, researchers have been exploring whether they can help ease the sense of loneliness.

Trials in care homes across the UK showed positive results, proving that voice technology can help with getting updates, setting reminders, playing audio content and, if available, controlling smart devices such as lighting.

Elderly people need our support more than ever at this time, and voice offers many ways to engage with them and make their lives easier.

Voice and kids’ entertainment

With schools closing, and people ordered to stay at home, screens have quickly become the main way for children to learn and socialise (and to give parents a break). Data collected by SuperAwesome, a US-based kids technology company, shows that the majority of children aged 6-12 are spending at least 50% more time in front of a screen than usual. Could voice assistants offer children some fun and education while giving them a break from screens?

As with touchscreens before, children seem to have no problem adopting voice technology. A survey conducted in 2018 showed that at least two million UK children are already using smart speakers. Brands have seen the potential here, with many starting to create voice-based experiences for children of all ages.

United Artists, the studio behind 2019’s animated movie ‘Missing Link’, launched an Alexa Skill which lets user participate in treasure hunts. Gimlet Media, a podcasting company acquired by Spotify in 2019, was the first to win a Cannes Lion for creating a voice-enabled toothbrushing companion for young children.

And lastly, Disney worked with Google Assistant to bring their story books to life by adding sound effects and soundtracks to accompany the story as it is read aloud.

While more and more brands create extra content, offer tips or make their products free, all aimed at helping parents spend time with their children; right now most solutions are still screen-based activities, with voice remaining an untapped opportunity.

How to make a difference

Since voice technology entered the mainstream, I’ve been most excited about its ability to assist us. So I was surprised when the conversation quickly shifted to the number of smart speakers sold, voice search or voice commerce because, as much as these are factors to consider, they all felt tactical: almost as though, in order to justify the hype, we needed easily quantifiable proof points.

For me, what was most interesting about voice was that it was a new interface that lets us access information and offer services in a way that breaks us out of the confines of the screen.

Now, with Covid-19 making us all stay at home, and as our focus shifts from pushing sales to offering support, I hope that both consumers and brands will see how much we have underestimated voice technology and its ability to make a meaningful difference to our lives.


Marek Wrobel is Head of Media Futures, Havas Media Group

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