Look Who's Talking

June 25, 2018

The walls really do have ears these days. Or, if they don’t, then some other piece of hardware in your home probably does.

No, I’m not talking about spies and hackers listening into your conversations. I’m talking about the ears -- and voices -- that we are voluntarily bringing into our homes by the millions. You may know them as the Amazon Echo, or the Google Home. In the industry they’re known as Virtual Assistants (VAs), and they’re changing the way we interact with our devices.

This technology is not exactly groundbreaking; it’s been a feature on iPhones since 2011. But in the wake of Amazon’s recent announcement to implement their Alexa Virtual Assistant into hotel rooms nationwide, I decided to take a closer look at these conversational computers.

VA technology has advanced at a startling rate in a very short time. This is true of many technologies in the age of the smartphone, but I find VAs so interesting because they stand at the nexus of two industry trends: the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and the drive to increase personal connections between people and their devices.

When we think about Artificial Intelligence, it can be tempting to focus on big picture solutions and sci-fi pipe dreams. But it’s the more humble applications of AI, such as the Voice Recognition tech powering VAs like Siri and Alexa, that are making a difference. Our machines have been learning right under our noses -- and they’ve proven to be excellent students.

But strong tech is not a surefire path to market dominance in the Voice Assistant sphere. When Facebook discontinued its own VA initiative at the beginning of 2018, Verge Editor Casey Newton talked about how the product never really clicked for him. “In practice, I almost never knew what to do with it,” he said. Virtual Assistants have the capability to make a uniquely personal connection with the user. If they do not, they will more than likely fail.

This is why companies developing VAs need to focus not just on functionality, but on creating a device that users feel comfortable with. Alexa and Siri are both well known for their pleasant voices and playful responses to various inquiries. These responses are often the subject of eye-rolls from online cynics, but they show these companies care about making their devices approachable as well as smart.

The technological growth of VAs in the last few years is reflected by an equally dramatic spike in device sales. According to a white paper commissioned by Sutherland Global, sales of smart speakers like the Amazon Echo increased by 126% between 2016 and 2017. That’s not just a marketing success story -- it’s a sign of major changes to the tech landscape.

What do these changes look like, and how much impact will they have on the industry at large? One trend I see expressed in the rise of Virtual Assistants is the resurgence of hardware. The industry’s current interest in IoT (Internet of Things) may be a fad, but it also may be a fundamental change in the way the virtual world interacts with the physical one. Virtual Assistants could be at the center of a new hardware-driven ecosystem.

Another, more abstract idea that VA popularity brings to mind is the way that we view our devices -- and the relationships we form with them. Fifteen years ago, nobody would have thought of a cellphone as anything more than a tool, and probably not even the most important one they owned. Fast-forward to today, and our phones, tablets, and computers are extensions of ourselves. For many people, the relationship they have with their devices may be the most reliable in their life.

So what happens when we start talking to them? In some cases, the reaction is extreme. In a 2017 study in the UK, 26% of smartphone users admitted to having sexual fantasies about their Virtual Assistants. While not all users have formed such intimate connections, it can’t be denied that we are interacting with our devices in an entirely new way.

Fully sentient, all-powerful Virtual Assistants like Jarvis from The Avengers might still be far in our future. But, whether they’re in your hotel room or your kitchen, Virtual Assistants aren’t going anywhere. They are at the vanguard of the hardware resurgence, and a possible indicator of how we will continue to develop closer relationships with technology.

Joseph Green

Joseph is currently a student at Emerson College, where he studies Visual Media and Communication. As Content Creator, Joseph develops engaging content via blog posts, push notifications, and ad-copy. Joseph also draws upon his research skills to help contextualize the company's place within larger technological and social trends in the industry.

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