Published in Dagens Industri, 2016
Although voice has been humanity’s most natural and powerful tool since ancient times, digital technology has been based on silent interaction. Obediently, we have pressed the buttons and apps that deliver our digital services.
Last year, in her famous trend report, Mary Meeker announced that the time of voice guidance has arrived. This year, the truth of her prophecy is verified on a regular basis. In January the Las Vegas Technology Fair exploded with talking refrigerators, lamps and cars. Five percent of all consumer sites now offer voice-enabled interfaces. Morgan Stanley estimates that 9 percent of US households are now talking with an Amazon Echo, the world’s leading voice-controlled technology hub. According to Comscore, 40 percent of Americans daily use their voices to search the internet. The stupid phone voice on SJ, which used to suggest Mora when you were trying to buy train tickets to Boden, has been replaced by computers that understand our words and sound much more like human beings when they speak. We are getting a new paradigm for the use of computer power.
From a user perspective, we are more comfortable when our eyes and hands are free for driving, cooking and exercising. According to a study at Stanford University, voice control is three times faster than writing text – and with significantly fewer errors. Households that already use Echo feel that their children are ruder toward voice-controlled service providers who answer smoothly regardless of the tone or malice of the user, but they are more impressed by the benefits – of quickly spouting out a pizza order, paying a bill and ordering a taxi. It is in the smart home and in the car that people’s use increases fastest, usually to turn up the heat, turn on lights and alarms, and play music. Two thirds of all users also let the voice-driven hub read the news. Microsoft dominated the PC world. Google and Apple own the smartphone environment. Amazon has an ambitious target with Alexa, their ecosystem for audio-based services. Last week, they announced that Alexa has gone from having 1,000 to 10,000 “skills” in one year, Amazon’s designation for what we call apps on our mobile phones. Voice-enabled services that work completely without a screen are a brilliant opportunity for entrepreneurs. When everyone can throw in a cheap chip, a sensor or an accelerometer into a 3D-printed shell, we will need to have a way to control all our smart products. Screens are too big and expensive to operate every light bulb, and connecting them all to smartphone apps is too complicated. It’s voice technology to the rescue.
How is a voice-controlled world different from a screen-based one? Search engines must answer questions that are pronounced as people think, rather than in synthetically truncated keywords. Every company will need to formulate its services in a unique audio experience. If companies find it difficult to remain visible in the app store, how will they be discovered in a screen-free interface? In a digital environment that is taking place in the background rather than in front of our eyes, marketing communication becomes a challenge. Voice-based purchases will lead to some form of conversation consumption. To create a natural conversation, Amazon has announced a $2.5-million prize for a robot voice that converses coherently and engagingly with a human for 20 minutes.
We may look back on the present day as a strange parenthesis when all digital technology was locked behind shining screens and clumsy remote controls. Voice control is a more intuitive and more democratic interface. Therefore, usage increases faster than for other new technologies. We are getting closer to a future where we speak with more with products than with people.