Pushing buttons is so yesterday. Today, everything is controlled by voice. Whether Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant or Cortana (you read that right – Cortana not corona), just a few years ago, voice assistants were still being hyped as the next big thing. So where are we now on the hype cycle? A very subjective review by Markus Sekulla.
Voice? Just hype! My opinion in 2020 was: No. Put somewhat more conservatively: Voice is not hype but an important step towards the smart home. That’s something I could get to like. But the question remains: Is Voice really as big as many people think, or is it disappointed love after we’ve all been using our Alexa just to tell us the time or as a better mobile phone speaker, and our Siri to set the five-minute timer for boiling eggs?
“Google, what do you think of Alexa?” – “She really has a lot to offer, I can buy some of what she says. 😊” – “And do you like Alexa?” – “I find her blue light very soothing and she also has a soft voice.” Sounds like friendship. Even when you ask about other voice assistants, Google behaves nicely and emphasises their merits. Here too, love is in the air. However, I’m afraid that we people are not so passionate when it comes to voice control.
For our tech blog in 2016 – way back then – we were sent an Amazon Echo to test. We were all delighted with the new possibilities and the unusual voice in the living room. Everyone who visited asked the weirdest questions, and we laughed our heads off at the soon-to-be AI. After a few days, though, it became clear that the most important application for me was the question I asked each night in the room: “Alexa, what time is it?” A few years later, I once again tested the Echo Show, which, in hindsight, should probably have ended up on the very short list of Amazon fails.
All in all, over the years I’ve tested all the major voice assistants and didn’t really feel a vacuum in my life after sending them back. Even today, I still don’t really use the remaining Siri very actively. Often, and I also recognise this in conversations among tech bloggers or in my circle of friends, it’s the little things that don’t work but have a big impact on our love – or lack of it – for the device. Therefore: Disappointed love 1, Next big thing 0.
In theory, Voice is convincing on many points: preparing shopping lists, doing shopping online, noting and reminding of appointments, and listening to the latest news. It can also switch on and control all electronic devices, such as lamps, the robot vacuum cleaner or the oven. Provided they are smart home-enabled, of course. This list is almost endless, and it would be too much of a good thing to list all their capabilities now. For quite limited user behaviour, they seem to be an all-round talent.
Some time ago, I was sitting with a friend in his car and we wanted to write a message to another friend. As a good front-seat passenger, I was just about to whip out my mobile and quickly type a message. But before I could flourish my fingers, within 10 seconds the driver alongside me had done the following: “Hey Siri, write a WhatsApp message to Frank.” – “WhatsApp message to Frank – what do you want to write?” – “Meet outside the station in 10 minutes” – “OK, WhatsApp to Frank sent.” Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t breaking news. But a friend who I’d previously placed more in the “offline-addicted” category showed me that Voice had really and usefully become part of his everyday life. So is Voice the next big thing, after all? More about that in a moment, but at least that was the equaliser for me. One-all!
Perhaps I was just too early with my 2016/2017 tests?
In the 1990s, a networked home was the stuff of sci-fi films. 30 years later, voice assistants and networked devices have taken their place at the heart of society and are booming. For comparison: in 2018, according to a Deloitte study, only one in eight households had smart speakers. The reasons for this were primarily privacy concerns and the lack of usefulness for many people. They simply didn’t have any devices that could communicate with each other.
In 2019, however, voice assistants experienced a strong upturn. The results of a Postbank study showed that one in three people were now using Alexa, Siri and co. In particular, the younger generation under the age of 40 couldn’t be without them. In this age group, every other person uses a voice assistant.
This is also a bit like what we see with voice messages on WhatsApp. Millennials and Gen Z-ers use voice assistants like we used Game Boy back in the day. For people of my age (around 40), we don’t really see the benefits. As a friend of new developments, I also use voice messages, especially for birthday songs. But all my acquaintances are very much in the “Why don’t you just phone?” camp. However, the fact remains that Voice plays a bigger role in the younger generation – excuse the generalisation – than we “older ones” are used to.
If surveys are to be believed, voice assistants are also cool, aloof and unapproachable. And yes, in times of coronavirus, with a Voice Box you certainly won’t have come up against social distancing. At the end of the day, they are technical devices intended to arouse a feeling of familiarity, as they are also told confidential information. They’re not supposed to replace people but to at least possess a spark of humanity, so that the user builds up a connection with them and willingly interacts with the voice assistant. In September 2019, Amazon therefore announced a gradual upgrade for Alexa, to make her voice more natural and human-like. Privacy issues are another subject, but more about that soon here on next…
The score stood at one-all, and I would have difficulty subscribing with enthusiasm to either of the two hypotheses. I’m using Siri again more after my experience with my mate in the car and have discovered new use scenarios for me besides the egg-timer. Little problems still keep cropping up, though, and will certainly not disappear any time soon. For example, I don’t see using Spotify properly with Siri or Alexa as a user-friendly experience. On the other hand, I use the WhatsApp and Notes function practically every day. So, too much to say disappointed love, but too little to justify the hype for me… For that to happen, there would have to be some cracking new uses – a next big thing in Voice almost. So let’s leave it as a draw. A better kind of one-all.
Text: Markus Sekulla