Market Spotlight: Voice Dominates the Future of Consumer Electronics
When it comes to the devices that they use every day, consumers have spoken, and they will continue to do so for many years to come.
As time goes on, many experts predict that consumer electronics will no longer even need screens, instead allowing consumers to use nothing more than their voices to activate and control them.
This comes amid growing consumer confidence with voice-based technologies, which have improved tremendously in the past three or four years alone. In fact, recent research by Adobe Digital Insights finds that only 4 percent of consumers feel that current voice technologies do not work well enough.
Speech adoption in consumer electronics is only expected to accelerate as more voice-activated devices come to market and as more electronics manufacturers begin to embed voice functionality into existing products and services.
It’s already happening, as speech recognition is now integrated into a wide variety of devices. Today, speech can be found in everything from thermostats to cars, refrigerators to lights, and televisions to water faucets.
“Speech technologies in the consumer electronics industry is one of many areas where the advancement of technology continues at a rapid pace,” says technology industry analyst Jeff Kagan. “Speech is working its way into more consumer electronics devices and technologies.”
Kagan sees speech in consumer electronics taking several forms. “There are many different levels of speech when it comes to the consumer electronics space. There are basic and more advanced speech.”
Basic speech, according to Kagan, “is not much more than the spoken instrument panel,” while advanced speech uses artificial intelligence and other technologies that let devices “think about and determine the right answer for you.”
Deborah Dahl, principal at speech and language consulting firm Conversational Technologies and chair of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Multimodal Interaction Working Group, also sees speech technologies becoming more widespread in consumer electronics. Conventional user interfaces, she says, “are becoming less and less usable. Deep menus, controls that work differently in different modes, and operations like long presses that are difficult to discover and hard for some users to perform are commonplace. Not only that, many devices have both on-device controls and remotes with different user interfaces. Speech-based user interfaces can cut through a lot of this complexity.”
As an example, Dahl cites Comcast’s voice-enabled TV remote control. The voice remote “simplifies many TV and DVR functions,” she says. “Programming DVRs used to be a poster child for poor user interface design. Voice interaction makes this task much, much simpler.”
Among voice-enabled devices, smartphones used to be the dominant form factor, but that is quickly shifting to smart speakers and other devices outfitted with voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Samsung’s Bixby.
There are 159 million smart speakers in use in the United States, and Adobe Digital reports that more than half of consumers who own voice assistants use them at least once a day.
The most popular uses for voice assistants are listening to music (61 percent), checking the weather forecast (60 percent), asking fun questions (54 percent), and research (53 percent). Additionally, 22 percent of people who own voice assistants use them for shopping, according to Adobe.
On the basis of end-user adoption, the automotive sector is also in a position of dominance, integrating speech technologies into in-car infotainment systems. Leading players, including Apple, Google, and Nuance Communications, are aggressively working toward reforming the driver experience. This also includes voice-activated ignition and voice-driven navigation systems to help drivers locate the nearest restaurant or fuel station.
Industry analyst firm Meticulous Market Research also highlights these market segments in a recent report, noting that speech recognition in particular is expected to witness high growth in smart home devices and connected cars. It, too, identifies AI as one of the main contributors to the increasing popularity of voice interaction with digital assistants for smart home, smart speaker, and connected car systems.
“Speech recognition is emerging as a crucial component of connected devices that provides virtually countless opportunities by enabling devices to intelligently respond to voice commands; whereas voice recognition provides a voice-enabled authentication to augment high levels of security for several devices,” Meticulous researchers conclude in the report.
Key speech technology vendors operating in the consumer electronics segment include Amazon, Apple, Baidu, Dolby Systems, Google, IBM, iFlytek, LumenVox, Microsoft, Nuance Communications, Sensory, and Sestek. Others include Raytheon, Harman International, Speechmatics, and Voiceware.
Although the adoption of voice-enabled devices is on the rise, Meticulous Research still finds a level of reluctance toward adopting new technologies, mainly due to the high cost of many smart devices, low awareness of what speech-enabled devices can do, and problems with some devices recognizing regional accents and dialects. These, coupled with data security concerns, could restrain the growth of voice in the consumer electronics market to some extent, the firm concludes.
Age is another factor. While younger generations are far more willing to use voice-enabled devices, reluctance toward adopting new technologies, specifically among older people, could also hinder market growth, according to Meticulous’s data.
Dahl also argues that voice interfaces could add new complexities to some devices. “Voice interaction requires a microphone and, in many cases, a display. It takes place in unpredictable acoustic environments, and users are often inexperienced. Both of these factors can lead to frustrating speech recognition errors,” she says.
“In addition, if every device has its own voice interface, users are likely to have a hard time keeping the different voice interfaces straight,” she adds.
The industry is going to have to find ways to keep voice interfaces consistent and easily learnable, Dahl continues. One way might be to consolidate the voice interface into gateway devices, like smart speakers that can control multiple devices.
But even then, the industry has more work to do. “Gateway devices aren’t always available, and they don’t work with every consumer device,” Dahl laments. “I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this, but we need to do some serious thinking about these issues as voice interfaces to consumer electronics become more and more ubiquitous.”
And there’s little doubt that ubiquity is inevitable. “Speech is more than just language. Speech with AI lets technology think, decide what you are looking for, and present it to you,” Kagan suggests. “Speech technology, along with AI and the Internet of Things, will continue to rapidly advance in the years to come.”
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