The 2017 Speech Industry Star Performers: Amazon
Amazon Continues Its Voice Shopping Spree
Amazon has always been the customer experience innovator, but with its continued emphasis on voice-based shopping as a way to offer consumers unique digital retail experiences, the company is now pushing the voice envelope as well.
Key to that effort is Amazon’s Alexa voice-based virtual assistant, which can be used to do just about anything, from ordering a pizza to reserving a hotel room. Alexa can make to-do lists; set alarms; play audiobooks and music; provide weather, traffic, news, sports scores, stock updates, and other real-time information; and control several home automation systems, all with a few simple voice commands.
The capabilities are growing every day with the ever-expanding list of Amazon Alexa skills. At press time, more than 10,000 skills were available, up from just 1,000 a year ago. Some of the most recent skills launches involved car buying service Edmunds.com, food ordering service Grubhub, insurers Liberty Mutual and Allstate, travel booking site Expedia, and Pizza Hut.
The list will only grow as Amazon continues making it easier for developers to add even more Alexa skills to the mix. Key partnerships inked this year with semiconductor provider Microsemi and audio and voice technology providers Conexant, Sensory, and Splice Software are helping in that effort.
Conexant, for example, released a four-microphone version of its AudioSmart Development Kit for Alexa Voice Service (AVS) to help device makers integrate Alexa into their products.
“As proven over the last few months by the explosive growth in third-party devices with Amazon Alexa featuring Conexant’s voice processing solutions, the voice revolution is in full swing,” said Saleel Awsare, president of Conexant, at the time. “We are excited to further fuel this growth by working with Amazon to expand our offering of development kits that make it easier, faster, and more cost-effective to prototype and develop new devices with Alexa.”
Another deal, also announced in early June, will bring Nuance Communications’ artificial intelligence–powered assistant Nina to Amazon Alexa, giving Nina users another channel through which to provide customer support. Nina is the first intelligence assistant that will integrate with Alexa.
But while Amazon has actively sought out third-party partners to help build out its Alexa voice platform, Amazon’s own internal development work with speech was just as impressive. In the fall, Amazon Web Services released a pair of AI products that will help developers build conversational user experiences for web, mobile, and connected-device apps. These products, named Lex and Polly, will help developers build apps that can understand natural language, convert text into speech, and carry on conversations using voice or text inputs.
Lex, officially launched Nov. 30, brings Alexa’s speech recognition and natural language processing technology to developers, who can use it to build conversational chatbots capable of connecting to various Amazon services and to Facebook Messenger. Developers can create and test conversational bots directly from within the AWS Management Console, and Lex builds the necessary language models and integrates with the appropriate back-end services.
Polly, meanwhile, is a text-to-speech engine that allows developers to add natural-sounding speech capabilities to existing applications, like newsreaders and e-learning platforms. Polly also can be used to create entirely new categories of speech-enabled products. Developers can send text to Polly using the software development kit from within the AWS Management Console and Polly immediately returns an audio stream that can be played directly or stored in standard audio file formats. The tool is available in 47 voices covering 24 languages.
But Amazon’s activity around voice wasn’t limited to just developers and partners. Consumers who use voice were the real beneficiaries on July 11, better known as Amazon Prime Day, the online retailer’s members-only shopping event. Amazon encouraged deal-seekers to shop with their voices by offering 100 exclusive Alexa Voice Deals and by granting Alexa voice shoppers early access to select Prime Day deals a full two hours before the general public.
Not surprisingly, the Alexa-powered Echo smart home device was among Amazon’s biggest sellers on Prime Day 2017, one of the most lucrative days in the company’s history.