Delivering solutions that can work effectively across the entire ecosystem of home technologies is going to become even more critical as the voice market evolves.

Verifying the true traction achieved by a technology can be challenging, especially when it is still in its infancy. But in the case of voice control, an abundance of research makes it clear that this is an area of technology currently experiencing phenomenal growth.

On the rise: 55% of households in the US to own a smart speaker by 2022

On the rise: 55% of households in the US to own a smart speaker by 2022

For example, OC&C Strategy Consultants predicts that 55% of all households in the US will own a smart speaker by 2022 - up from only 13% in 2017.

Meanwhile, Comscore forecasts that 50% of all searches will be voice searches by as early as next year.

With these findings indicating that - sooner or later - most households will have some form of voice control capability, it’s no surprise to discover that technology vendors, content creators and brands are investing considerable time and resources in exploring its potential.

Many of the key issues here were discussed during an illuminating IBC webinar, Creating brand loyalty and new TV revenues with next-generation voice control, through contribution from Nuance Communications director EMEA intelligent engagement, Sebastian Reeve,  Liberty Global VP entertainment products Pieter Vervoort, and BBC senior architect voice & AI Dan Whaley.

All participants echoed Reeve’s observation that “although we are already beginning to see some very exciting developments and projects, I don’t think we have even begun to scratch the surface of how we can harness and utilise voice.” In particular, he thinks that a combination of voice, superb connectivity (either via home wifi or 5G networks) and effective e-commerce will “open up some tremendous opportunities for brands and retailers”.

Reeve goes on to outline a probable user scenario: “Imagine that you are in the car on a long journey, and during that time you can order your shopping and have everything delivered to your house,” he says. “Similarly, you could use voice control to adjust the heating or lighting back home, or pay your bills online. The ability to leverage the technology so that users can undertake all manner of tasks, whether at home or on the move, by voice alone is very exciting.”

Nuance Communications’ awareness of this potential has informed its own development of AI-powered speech technologies that allow organisations to devise interactive voice response (IVR) and speech solutions. Underpinning its approach is a focus on what the company terms ‘omnichannel intelligent engagement’ - in other words, allowing customers to use voice across applications and platforms, as well as in combination with other methods of engagement, for maximum flexibility.

Voice will

Voice will “open up tremendous opportunities”: Sebastian Reeve

At this point in time it’s a level of versatility that Reeve believes is “unique in the market”. He adds that to date a lot of companies have focused on one specific environment; instead, Nuance “sits outside all of that. Rather than concentrate on one specific ecosystem we are able to provide solutions that work across all of them. Our approach is to make it possible to have all the skills and actions go through a single platform so that the customer has a consistent experience. By the same token they can also have all self-service interactions occur using the same ‘brain’.”

Unified experiences
Elsewhere in the market there are signs that many companies are beginning to grasp the importance of both seamless voice integration and a unified end-user experience.

An increasing number of companies are adding support for one or more virtual assistant; for example, TiVo recently added support for Amazon’s Alexa in products including its Series 4 (Premiere), 5 (Roamio) and 6 (Bolt) DVR boxes.

The Google Assistant also continues to expand its global footprint, with a slew of home entertainment productions adding support in the wake of the first Assistant-capable display screens being launched towards the end of 2018.

If the physical availability of products is unlikely to be an issue for much longer, it could be that the mindset needed to make the most of voice-connected environments still takes a while to coalesce. Reeve is not alone in stressing that voice should not be perceived as a wholescale replacement to existing forms of communication - not least by vendors and service providers seeking to capitalise on its potential.

“Although voice is certainly a strong part of the story, the bigger picture transcends voice,” he says. “For Nuance it’s about the customer being in the driver’s seat, able to engage meaningfully regardless of the mode. So if you consider the TV as another channel by which people engage, whether it be via voice to find interesting content or to engage with customer service to pay a bill or even to purchase goods and services, then it’s very powerful.”

Of course, an important part of the challenge here will be to remain one step ahead of evolving patterns of customer engagement. There is no argument that AI will be a fundamental component of future services, from development to delivery and beyond. Accordingly, one of Reeve’s main responsibilities is to explain to the customer base - which now includes more than 30 major media organisations - how they can use AI and machine learning technology to create experiences that their customers “actively choose to use”.

In what looks set to remain a fast-moving market, avoiding complexity for end-users and empowering companies to engage with customers in as consistent and stress-free a manner as possible is going to be integral to the global success of voice. “Ultimately, everything has to be driven by the customer and reflect the way in which they want to live,” concludes Reeve. “The experience around voice needs to be as seamless as possible, and only when this is achieved will it be able to realise its true potential.”