The 2016 State of the Speech Technology Industry: Intelligent Virtual Assistants

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With the advent of the connected car and the growing presence of the Internet of Things in the home and elsewhere, the intelligent virtual assistant (IVA) is well on its way to becoming ubiquitous. IVAs have grown from being disparate solutions for voice-based interactions to integral parts of omnichannel solutions in many enterprises.

Dan Miller, founder and lead analyst at Opus Research, estimates that spending on IVA solutions will grow about 28 percent annually over the next few years, exceeding $500 million by 2017 and passing $1 billion by 2020.

Apple’s Siri is still the best known IVA, but Google, Microsoft, Nuance, Interactions, 24[7], NextIT, and several other companies are sharing in the growth of the market, according to Miller. There is also a growing number of firms entering the business or, like IBM Watson, offering an IVA as part of another solution.

No Longer Just a Toy

According to Miller, 2015 was a breakthrough year for acceptance of the technology and its initial expansion beyond routine applications to more advanced uses among consumers and enterprises.

"A major reason for these advances is that speech recognition technology is getting better all the time, which means that users benefit from better first-time understanding and more hands-free multi-tasking," Nick Mitchell, [24]7's managing director of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, wrote in a company blog post. "All the incoming voice data gives the speech technology's machine-learning algorithms a lot to work with and the algorithms themselves have also become a lot more powerful because of the development of deep neural networks."

"One of the things that we see is that the technology has evolved from being a toy to something that is becoming increasingly useful," says Carla Johnston, manager of cloud and transformation initiative for Aspect. "People are using it to pay their bills rather than going through the 15 steps they might need with an IVR. Convergence is happening. The users of the technology want an intelligent assistant that can handle not only speech, but also text." Delivering both capabilities increases both the technology's usefulness and user engagement, Johnston adds.

"We're seeing further adoption of the technology," says Gregory Pal, vice president of strategy for the enterprise division of Nuance. "The level of interest in omnichannel use is continuing to increase. Before, this was a siloed investment, but once companies have invested in developing the grammar and natural language capabilities, they want to be able to leverage that investment for the Web."

Another development that is in its early stages, according to Pal, is the evolution of the IVA from a reactive technology to a proactive one. For example, Nuance worked with USAA to develop the Savings Coach app, a proactive virtual assistant designed to help Millennials save money.

The app—available to all USAA members—tracks when users skip a purchase, like buying a coffee, and moves the money they would have spent on that purchase from their checking account to a savings account. Members are rewarded through points, badges, and new levels within the app.

In the Netherlands, customers of financial services firm ING can now use an IVA featuring voice biometric authentication for mobile payments. Miller and Pal expect such uses to go up as financial services firms seek to easily authenticate mobile payment users. "Once you have strong confidence that someone is who they claim they are, then you can authorize them to use more resources," Miller says.

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