The Future Of Voice: Part 2
Following on from Part 1, Neil Stewart, Cloud Systems Developer Lead at Cloudreach, shares his thoughts on how the future of Voice could affect our everyday lives.
Neil has been working with Amazon Alexa development for the past 2 years and has some great ideas on where voice technology could go next with a bit of creativity and work in some key areas.
"Alexa, ask Cloudreach to tell me more about voice technology in the real world"
With the rise of voice assistants in people’s homes, whether it be Amazon Alexa, Google Home or Apple’s Siri, there has been a lot of interest by developers, businesses and of course the media around what this means. Now, millions of customers have the hardware and software to interact with these assistants from the comfort and convenience of their own homes, the question is what can we do with that?
The media like to think it means everyone is being spied on and we can all be listened in on by the NSA/GCHQ/(insert local spy agency here) but that’s a bit dystopian and not very exciting! What I want to focus on is the practical applications of voice assistants and their interactions can have on everyday lives.
Some of the obvious use cases you see just now are pretty simple - setting timers, ordering an Uber or asking for a cat fact are all well and good, but as the voice recognition and understanding improves in accuracy, it opens up a whole new range of potential interactions.
Voice in Healthcare
What about in care homes, hospitals or assisted living?
Voice assistants could give the people who need help and the people who give help a simple interface to make complex requests. "Mrs Smith, it is 6pm and according to my records, you need to take your medicine. Do you require any help with this?". If Mrs Smith says No, no problem. If she says yes, Alexa could contact a Nurse or care assistant and either connect them directly over the Alexa devices or give them an update. "Mrs Smith is requesting some help with her medicine. She is in room 26B and she requires her heart medication."
Voice in Hospitality
In the restaurant industry, waiters and other front of house staff could be assisted with these devices by having them placed at tables. Using the devices to make or amend orders, pay for them using a card reader attached to the device or asking how long their order might be.
For another example, how about a Hotel. I can easily imagine hotel rooms with Alexa devices in them and being able to simply ask Alexa to order room service or request a morning newspaper. As well as all of the normal consumer options, these more specific contextual interactions can save businesses time, money and keep up with technological trends. For the customer, it is fast! There’s no need to wait for a phone to be answered or needing to go down stairs to reception. In the same scenario, I can imagine a check in/check out kiosk. When your guest arrives, a simple button "Press to Check In" could start an Alexa skill that deals with check in & check out"
"Hello there, how can I help?"
"I’d like to check in"
"Great, please tell me your name and I’ll make sure we have your reservation on file"…
A simple interaction that could be further enriched by allowing users to give more information at the start of the interaction.
"Hello there, how can I help?"
"I’d like to check into my room. I have a reservation for John Smith for 4 nights"
"Great, I have your reservation here. I’ve now checked you in. Please take one of the Key cards in front of you and place it on the reader - this will activate your card for your room".
Voice in DevOps
For a final example, here’s how voice could influence my job.
You could develop a DevOps capability using voice - asking about your infrastructure health or making deployments to your development or even production environments
"Alexa, deploy the latest release to dev". Behind the scenes, pre-existing pipelines are triggered whilst you can get back to what you are doing. If issues arise or the pipeline completes, Alexa can be notified and tell you about it. No need to go to a login page, find the build job you need and filling in a form to get to the same result. If the request you make to Alexa is missing some information to complete a task, it can simply ask you “Can you confirm which service you would like to deploy the latest release of to the development environment?”
In many cases, most of these scenarios are already mostly possible. There is still work to be done on the voice assistant front to allow some of the features that would enable the smoothness/connectivity. For example connecting two devices to each other through API calls is not currently available, but the feature already exists between consumer users if they want to call or message each other. It’s not difficult to imagine this being extended to developer access to allow these fluid and useful connections to be made.
As voice assistants get smarter and are able to understand more about the situation they are being used in, the only thing left to do is to create user friendly and useful experiences for your users. Whilst the interactions above are mostly already possible, it takes a lot of time and effort to create a voice experience that people actually want to use (over the legacy human interaction) and provide a genuine use or function. Making your Alexa make cat or dog noises is fun for about 3 minutes, but users will get bored very quickly if these business placed functions are simple gimmicks.
Before a lot of these examples can become reality I see a few areas that need to improve before it’s the norm.
Room for improvement
First of all is the developer capabilities for each of these devices. Alexa and Google Home are both too far ahead in their journey to offer developer support, but both have a way to go to be as useful as a mobile app or website. APIs like calling between devices or phone numbers, Push Notifications that start a new interaction and Enterprise Authentication all still needed to be improved or added.
Alexa devices currently support calling from a user to user, based on your phone address book and email address but when it comes to Developer access, I have no ability to start a call or send a message to another device (Useful for the Healthcare or Hotel examples). Push notifications are implemented but in the case of Alexa are on a case-by-case basis and they cannot currently start a new interaction. For example in the Healthcare situation where Mrs Smith is reminded to take her pills, you could set a reminder on the device (again not currently possible with current APIs) but you couldn’t trigger that reminder on a server somewhere, then start the device with a question “Do you need help?". I see this coming as we do this all the time with Mobile push notifications but as Voice is still such a new area, these things take time!
Enterprise authentication is another example. Alexa for Business was recently introduced and provided the ability to Manage Echo devices at scale, however they require each device to be turned on and connected with a provider rather than being granted access based purely on the devices ID and User information. The current mechanism for letting customers interact with their own data via devices in a business environment (Hotel scenario for example, if the user wants to play music from their own Spotify account) is cumbersome just now. It would be nice to have some sort of simple account linking "Alexa, link my personal account". "To link, please open your Alexa app and hold the phone near me". This could be achieved using audio to connect the Device to the account, using the phone to record and authenticate - Think QR codes but Audio!
Overall, the future of voice assistants is super exciting. Some of the examples above are fairly easy to imagine being common place not too far from now and I’m sure even more advanced and natural uses will become possible as we become more accepting of voice assistants.
I am excited to see what happens next!