Hey! What’s up with smart speakers?

Last Updated 30 December 2018, 16:53 IST

Amazon Echo’s Alexa is at a nascent stage in the Indian market, but the recent advertisement gives one an idea of a voice-enabled virtual assistant. Welcome to the world of a virtual assistant that can help you read the news, give weather updates, and also play the music. All these are done just by using your voice!

The above are a few of the many skills that any voice-enabled virtual assistant is capable of doing. Such features make the virtual assistant market in India to grow at a phenomenal rate. Over the past year, there has been a rise in the demand for virtually-driven bots and virtual assistants in general. And all the big market players can be seen playing their cards on the field. Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, Samsung’s Bixby and Apple’s Siri are some of the other virtual assistants available in this segment.

Expanding reach

Since its launch in India on June 5, 2013, Amazon has launched several in-house products including its virtual assistant Alexa, hand-free speaker Echo, Kindle, and Firestick. The Seattle-based e-tailing giant Amazon wants to go a step further in India and get brands and enterprises to partner with its voice-based search engine.

Alexa, which celebrated its first year anniversary in India last month, has clubbed with several big players in the country to increase its foothold and introduce Alexa-enabled products in the Indian market. As part of its enterprise strategy for Alexa, Amazon has allowed independent developers, young professionals and students to create skills on the platform. Amazon has listed partners like IT services firm Mphasis and TC S.

IndusInd Bank with its skill IndusAssist is the first banking service being made available on Alexa. “Banking on Alexa is another responsive innovation from the bank which is aimed at customers who seek convenience and are comfortable with self-service for all their financial interactions. While Gen Y and Gen X customers constitute the majority, we have observed usage across the age and income levels. With increasing adoption of the Alexa device, we will see a usage across the entire customer spectrum,” says Ritesh Raj Saxena, Business Head in Retail Banking, Digital, and Payments, IndusInd Bank.

The IndusInd Alexa skill requires a one-time setup on the Alexa app and device. The set-up happens through a secure authentication with banking credentials. Once the setup is complete, the customers can use voice commands for carrying out a wide array of financial and non-financial features across banking and cards. Saxena says the financial transactions are secured through two factors authentication using voice PIN and OTP.

Post a one-time registration, all authentication and transaction requests done by the bank’s customers will remain voice-based enabling the customers to recharge their mobile phones, pay credit card bills and so on by voicing out commandments.

The cloud-based voice assistant has made its platform available to many organisations to add their skills on it. Companies such as Ola, Goibibo, Jet Airways for travel; Faasos, Freshmenu, Zomato, for food & recipes; Saavn, ESPNCricinfo, Bollywood Hungama for sports & entertainment; Byju’s for education; UrbanClap, Syska, Phillips, Skype for home services, video calling, and smart home, among others.

Voice controlled variants

Amongst firms which have products that can be controlled via Alexa, Voltas has launched a range of smart ACs that can be controlled using voice commands with Alexa. Syska smart home devices, MI’s Air purifier, and Yeelight smart light have also introduced similar voice controlled variants of their products.

According to a report, ‘Digital Assistant and Voice AI–Capable Device Forecast: 2016–21’ by Ovum, there will be an exponential uptake of voice AI capabilities among new devices, including wearable, smart home, and TV devices, with a combined, installed base of 1.63 billion active devices in 2021 globally, a ten-fold increase on 2016. Despite all the hype that surrounds AI-capable connected speakers, TV devices (i.e. smart TVs, set-top boxes and media streamers) offer a larger opportunity, accounting for 57% of that installed base in 2021. “Ultimately, a digital assistant is just another user interface. It will only be as good as the ecosystem of devices and services that it is compatible with,” says Ronan de Renesse, Practice Leader for Ovum’s Consumer Technology team in the report.

“HomePod will be a global smart home speaker as Siri speaks 20+ languages, whereas Google Assistant and Alexa speak less than a handful,” adds Renesse in the report.

Aparna Nandyal, Senior SDE, Alexa Communications says, components of voice-enabled devices are automatic speed recognition engine, natural language understanding engine, cloud-based speech applications and text to speech converter.

At a recent Amazon Women in Technology conference 2018, she pointed out that only one question can be asked to Alexa like ‘What’s the weather in Chennai’ and not in 2 cities like ‘What’s the weather in Chennai and Bengaluru.’ Amazon also has plans to increase the number of languages that Alexa communicates in, and she said that it is being prioritised according to business needs.

Promising market

Of the total number of units sold in the world in 2016, Amazon Echo emerged as the undisputed market leader among AI-enabled smart home speakers with 88% share.

Apart from Alexa, Google’s Home and Home mini are available in the market. A report by IDC says that if taken together, in 2017, Amazon and Google accounted for 96.5% of the total market in terms of shipments globally. “The smart speaker market in India has recorded a 43% sequential growth in the second quarter of the current financial year. And in 2019, we expect the virtual assistant to continue to grow as the interest in voice-based interactions continues to grow,” the IDC report points out.

“In a very short span of time, Google Home smart speakers have caputred the second position in the voice-enabled virtual assistant category. As of Q2 2018, the Google Home Mini accounted for 20% of the global smart speaker sales, which is 2.3 million units over the three-month period,” says a Google India spokesperson. With enough competitive players in the voice-enabled virtual assistant market in India, there is a lot of traction to be expected in the next couple of years. But one important challenge that needs to be addressed is security issues.

Privacy issues

According to a Symantec report, the biggest threat to the security of your voice-activated smart speaker is the other people who can access it. “The biggest concern is around privacy, as these devices are always listening and sending encrypted recordings to the cloud backend once an assumed keyword is heard,” the report says. After setting up a smart speaker device at home, it is important to configure it securely. Of the many configuration tips, Symantec says, “Erase sensitive recordings from time to time; Protect the service account linked to the device with a strong password; and do not turn off automatic update functions on the device.”

In the coming years, there will be many additions and collaborations made to these devices. Perhaps by the end of the next decade, these voice-based assistants would be smart enough to predict their own path!

(Published 30 December 2018, 15:25 IST)

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