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The 2016 Speech Industry Implementation Awards: Comcast

By Jean Thilmany - Posted Aug 1, 2016
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Customer: Comcast

Vendor: Comcast

Product: Comcast Voice Remote

Cable television provider Comcast wants to free TV viewers from painstakingly clicking their way through the alphabet to spell out, say, “NFL” or “The Big Bang ­Theory” on search screens; instead, it wants to make the cable-viewing experience easier by letting you voice your preferences.

And it’s been quite successful, with the May 2015 launch of the Xfinity remote with voice control, which allows users of the X1 operating system to search for and navigate tens of thousands of shows by speaking into the remote.

The cable provider’s X1 platform is billed as personalized TV. It brings cloud-computing technology to Comcast’s technology network, so users can view the same customized screen—with apps, social media features, and traditional video services—on their tablets, their smartphones, and the TV itself. Viewers with the X1 operating system can search through live TV, on-demand shows, and their own DVR library for the shows they want to watch.

Comcast released X1 in March 2012; January 2013 saw the debut of an iTunes-available voice app meant to serve as the X1 remote, says Jeanine Heck, Comcast’s senior director of product development.

“We got a really great response from people using it, but it was tough to get engagement on an app,” she says. “We knew from the outset this thing would be a lot more useful if we put voice recognition on a typical, physical remote.”

Viewers’ TV show searches were slowed because they had to pick up the phone, open it, and launch the app, she says. Also, the smartphone-housed app introduced friction and noise into the remote, which also slowed down searches.

Comcast developers began work on a voice-activated physical remote and were able to fine-tune and optimize its features by observing the app users’ habits, Heck says.

The X1 remote—the physical version, that is—launched in May 2015 and is now delivered with every new X1 installation. Though about half of Comcast’s 27.7 million customers are X1 users, Comcast estimates about 8 million remotes are currently active in customers’ homes, Heck says.

So how does it work? Simply, Heck says.

“You just press a button and push it to talk,” she says. “So you say ‘ESPN’ and it changes the channel to ESPN. Or you say ‘Match, Modern Family’ and it brings up all the episodes of Modern Family.”

Pause, rewind, fast-forward, and other features are also voice-activated, Heck says.

“Or you could say, ‘Show me all the movies on HBO,’ or search by actor or sports player. There are hundreds of ways you can use it,” she adds.

Comcast developed the remote’s hardware and much of its software in-house but teamed with a “big name” automatic speech recognition company to provide the speech-to-text capabilities, Heck says.

Feedback has been positive, she adds.

The company’s analytics software shows there are 200 million voice commands executed each month, with each customer averaging about 11 commands per week. Heck notes that Comcast tracks user numbers only in aggregate, not individually.

The technology has also increased X1 viewership. The operating platform saw a 25 percent increase in on-demand hours watched; a 20 percent increase in video-on-demand revenue (Comcast doesn’t make revenue numbers public); and a 30 percent reduction in the voluntary churn rate since the physical remote was introduced more than one year ago, Heck says.

Since the remote’s release, transactional revenue from X1 Video On Demand customers has been 3.7 times higher than that of national pay TV customers of video on-demand services, she adds.

The cable provider has a new user goal.

“Our goal is to get X1 to half of our Comcast view footprint by the Olympics,” she says.

That means she wants the remote in the hands of more than 13.5 million customers, a 5 million increase in the number of current remote users. Can it be done? Well, the feat isn’t Olympian. Heck gives the gold-medal move a big yes.

THE RESULTS

After launching its X1 voice remote in May 2015, Comcast has seen:

• 8 million remotes active in users’ homes;

• a 20 percent increase in revenue from video on demand; and

• a 30 percent reduction in the number of users turning off the X1 service.

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