The following interview we gave when Amazon announced that the Amazon echo would launch in October in UK and Germany.
What is FutureOfVoice working on?
Tilmann: We are building voice applications for the Amazon Echo and other devices with a focus on excellent customer experiences. Our mission is to enable brands, people of trust and online stores to reach their customers via Conversational Commerce. Conversational Commerce needs advisors to help the user to make the best buying decision.
Do you think Voice User Interface are a hype or a general trend?
Stefan: By now I have watched hundreds of users interacting with digital assistances via voice. Especially people talking to Alexa via the echo enjoyed this seamless communication. As the experience is already so good I consider it just the very beginning of a new paradigm of human-machine communication. Whoever hasn’t tried the echo yet, leave the nasty associations with phone voice interface we all had in the last decade behind and give it a try – this technology has reached an entirely new level. Data from a report about Intelligent Voice Assistants by MindMeld from 2016 showed that 45% of users adopted to the usage of voice within the last year and 55% use voice assistants regularly (daily or weekly).
Will we only communicate via voice with machines?
Stefan: It is unlikely. However, in some situations voice has more advantages than GUIs in others it is the other way around. I consider a voice interface particular useful in these situations
- No hands-free: When you don’t have a hand free, a voice interface is one of the best options to interact with machines, like in cars.
- Expressing complex situations: From the cradle, we have learned to talk. As humans, it is a natural way to communicate. When we use GUIs we need to communicate in the language of the machines. Trying to represent complex situations in a GUI can be quite tricky. Especially senior citizens enjoy expressing this situation in natural language.
- Parallel activities: As humans, we don’t need much concentration to talk. So it is easy for us to place a command while doing something else. For example, when you are placing the eggs in the water it is still easy to say “Alexa, set a countdown to 7 minutes”.
What do you expect Amazon to do long term with Alexa?
Tilmann: I believe they want to establish Alexa as the primary Voice Assistant. A voice assistance that will be around in many devices and will react to your needs. Book tables, order stuff, make appointments or give advice. It is reasonable to believe that during the time when voice assistants still have constraints in what dialogs they understand people need to get used to their assistant. So as long as you need to learn how you can talk with one assistant, the average joe prefers to have as few different assistants as possible and just one in the best case. Just like Siri and Ok Google, Alexa wants to win this race become the primary voice assistant.
Amazon has a head start because they opened their voice platform via an API for developers. That is smart because innovation does not have to come from Amazon alone. A whole developer ecosystem can work on that.
Do you see privacy problems with a device always listening?
Stefan: Privacy is a very import topic and we should always pay attention to whom we give what data and what they do with it. In association with the echo, I get asked this question very often. Let’s take a look at when Echo is listing first. The Echo is always scanning for the wake word “Alexa”. This is done locally, so nothing is sent to the cloud if the wake word is not detected. If the wake word is found, however, the last seconds and the following phrase are sent to Amazon’s cloud.
For me, it is quite interesting how the effect on privacy seems to be judged differently in the context of Alexa and other services. The latest Android phone generation, as well as the iPhone generation, can always listen for their make words as soon as they screen is on. So if you use the phone while sitting on the toilet, which, to me, is a situation hard to top in terms of privacy, the phone is also locally listening. However, I didn’t hear many privacy concerns about these features. This difference in perception of a similar feature makes me believe that the psychological effect of a physical representation of the echo plays an important role in this privacy perception.
As I have Ok Google activated, use Gmail which contains also all my facebook notifications, use Google location tracking feature, which is activated by default, Google has so much more of my data available than Amazon receives via these few dialogs with Alexa. So personally, the Echo is not much of a concern to me.
Having an always on listening device in your living room seems to be an easy target. But our smartphones with their microphones and cameras do have this functionality since years and we even take them with us to our bedroom.
What challenges are unique to a launch in Europa?
Tilmann: The most important challenge to a launch in Europa is, obviously, the number of different languages. So there won’t be a European-wide launch but country specific ones. The first countries are the UK where the Echo will be released on 26th of September followed by Germany on the 26th of October.
Alexa provides a lot of local information. In different countries different services provide this data. So country specific work needs to be done. For example in Germany where the public transport is often used, Amazon worked together with the Deutsche Bahn to include this data.
Where do you see the key strategic differences between Alexa, Siri, and Ok Google?
Stefan: From my perspective, there are three major differences between Alexa and Siri & Ok Google: the extensibility, the feature set, and the ties to the hardware.
The key different from my perspective is that in contrast to Siri & Ok Google, Alexa is a platform. Just like we download new Apps to our smartphones to extend its functionality you can activate so-called skills for Alexa. This advantage is about to drop. Siri has announced to open up Siri for extensions and Google has announced for the Google Home that the functionality can be extended to work with third party smart home devices. So as Google and Apple both announced steps to in this direction, it seems that over time they will all be a platform. Until then Alexa has a good headstart with the more than 3000 skills they have in their Skillstore already.
The set of functionality Siri and Ok Google provides resembles much of what you would usually do with the smartphone, like texting and looking up facts. As the echo is placed mostly in kitchens a different set of functionality is used. The echo is more like a kitchen aid, smart audio player and smart home controller. This study does a good job in comparing the fields of application.
Finally, Alexa is not bound to a device like Siri and Ok Google is. Currently, Alexa is mostly used via the Echo, which is the name of the Alexa powered speaker. Alexa itself is a cloud service which can be integrated into pretty much any device with a microphone, a speaker and internet access. This opens an entirely new range of possibilities. Alexa is about to be integrated into cars, like Ford and BMW, in smartwatches and kitchen magnets.