I’m excited by what the next year of innovation in voice interaction and artificial intelligence will hold. Lookout below…
Voice interactions will improve exponentially as standards and intuitive features emerge, and digital designers everywhere should recognize how momentous that is. The set of definitions and models we create for Voice Interaction today will influence the shape of things for a long time to come. For an analogy, think back across the models of interaction that caught-on over the past 20 years (e.g., how we browse the web, or, more recently, the common icons, forms, and gesture styles we use across the app market). At Critical Mass, we’re working tirelessly to turn better Voice Interaction standards into usable tools for our clients in the short term, but we also want to play a role in molding the future of this technology for the better — so that both brands and everyday users benefit.
Voice interaction experiences represent a small window of opportunity for competitors to loosen Google’s stranglehold on the search market. For the most part, voice interaction remains an exercise in precision and contextual search results. Even though it’s still a “best algorithm wins” game, all algorithms are pretty good now. Just as everyone got hooked on Googling for information, they could easily get hooked into a new interaction habit with a voice assistant that isn’t powered by Google. I’m personally not betting that Google gets unseated — they are running harder than anyone at this space — but again, it’s a small window and I wouldn’t be surprised if new entrants steal some user loyalty.
Are you, or have you ever been, a new parent? If not, let me bring you up to speed: their hands are full. Literally. The conditions for voice interactions are perfect in a home with young children. In addition to being able to give your child a bath or cook a meal without interruption, every parent can tell you that if you try to stay connected with your mobile phone in proximity to a young child, the phone will be ripped from your hands, used as teething toy, and then flung across the room at the cat. And, it turns out, phones are expensive to replace. Want to know how to improve your voice efforts? Talk to new parents.
The prospect of not fumbling with cords is only slightly interesting, but I don’t believe that’s the real reason Apple is moving toward wireless earbuds. I think Apple sees AirPods as something akin to Google Glass, but with less risk of negative social bias. AirPods present an always-on, always at-the-ready opportunity for personal connection to content. Apple is simply placing a first bet on a non-visual connection — at least until optical wearable technology matures. In 2017 we’ll get a glimpse of a constantly connected future through the AirPods.
If Max Headroom were alive today, well maybe he is — I’m not sure how we determine the true mortality of artificial beings — he’d be impressed by what’s to come in 2017. The closer voice interactions and AI get to natural language conversations, the more we can apply personality traits to our virtual agents. At Critical Mass, we’ve already begun advising our clients to craft unique personalities and a tone of voice that aligns with their core brand — or potentially introduce a new character for a brand that would like to shift perceptions or attract a new audience. In either case look for these new personalities to make their debuts through voice in 2017, but more importantly look for those that take hold across multiple channels. In the very near future we will see a new TV brand character that was originally born out of a digital voice experience.
Apple’s integration of Siri across multiple products in 2016 was a clear reminder that we’re heading to a voice-enabled future. The only issue is that many of those products were not engineered with listening and speaking in mind. The quality and ability of the microphone in their devices can’t keep up with purpose built devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. I expect to see peripherals launched for Apple products that bring them to an equivalent quality across enforcements. We will see the same thing happen across other PC devices that have voice interaction software capabilities, but imperfect hardware out of the box.
It may be the last thing many people think of, but it will be one of the first things we notice. The current state of major website content management systems (CMS) and digital asset management (DAM) is about to fall woefully short of consumer demands, because companies are still building infrastructure around text, forms, and image assets. Many companies are not preparing themselves for the next 3–5 years and as they begin to ask questions about delivering voice-enabled experiences in 2017 the gaps will begin to appear. That won’t do. Companies need to start building for the future present if they want to deliver product-related audio content across new sets of channels and interactions.
[A version of this article originally appeared in Venture Beat on 12/2/16]