Delivering a consistent voice experience across devices and platforms remains critical as awareness of voice’s inherent power in home entertainment hits an all-time high.

As the number of paid streaming services and premium channels has continued to grow, so has the need to provide accessible and user-friendly tools by which content can be searched, identified and enjoyed. But there is no doubt that the desire to optimise one particular approach – voice  – has remained perhaps the primary focus of innovation. And as Nuance Communications GM and VP, Intelligent Engagement Tony Lorentzen indicates, it’s not hard to understand why.

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Lorentzen: ’Voice connects people like nothing else’

“Voice connects people like nothing else,” he says. “It continues to evolve and take on different shapes, but it is still one of the most powerful tools we have. If you consider that with voice, barriers to adoption and engagement are removed, education, technical acumen and age are no longer an issue.

“Voice is a key tool that enriches viewer engagement and allows telecommunications providers another tool to provide a superior experience and add true value for their customers.”

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Hence the narrative here is one of continued technological innovation intended to make more sophisticated use of voice as a way of bringing subscribers and services closer together; of increasingly seamless integration of voice search into consumer products; and of the exciting new possibilities heralded by deeper utilisation of AI and ML.

Context, memory & consistency

Nuance’s Dragon TV platform is a key example of the more sophisticated voice-driven solutions to have emerged recently. Managing conversations by using both context and memory, Dragon TV turns customer’s speech into digital interactions in order to increase convenience and improve the overall experience.

“Voice connects people like nothing else…it continues to evolve and take on different shapes, but it is still one of the most powerful tools we have,” Tony Lorentzen, Nuance Communications

The platform, explains Lorentzen, uses more than 1,000 unique characteristics of a customer’s voice to identify them in seconds: “That means customers don’t need to remember the PIN for the parental control settings on their TV, or the password for their user account. And they don’t have to go digging for their preferred content – with a voice command like ‘show me my recordings’, they can access it easily as Dragon TV automatically recognises their voice and loads up their personal collection of recorded shows.”

Pointing to a broader trend towards voice-activated customer care, Dragon TV has expanded to include self-service tasks such as accessing and paying bills. Voice biometrics also allow for parental controls and speaker identification, notes Lorentzen: “This enables the protection of young viewers from broader content as well as the ability to build profiles, determine ‘who’s watching’, and provide personalised offers and content to really supercharge customer options.”

With Nuance’s own statistics to draw on – including the fact that the average user of Dragon TV makes 100 voice requests each month – Lorentzen emphasises the critical role that consistency across “multiple devices and communication methods” will continue to play in the future of voice search. “It becomes evermore important for the carrier to provide a uniformly branded experience, adapted for the modalities of the device,” he explains. “This means that not only should voice services be similar in the way they act across platforms, but also that the carrier should implement an omni-channel approach to communication with the users.

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The average user of Dragon TV makes 100 voice requests each month

For example, in addition to content discovery and control of the experience by voice, the carrier and the user can communicate via phone and SMS messaging, and by using the TV/STB and/or mobile applications as channels. “This way users will get the information and actions from the carrier faster and more efficiently, while the carrier takes advantage of this improved communication by better serving their users, who consequently will become happier and more prolific consumers of the carrier’s offering.”

Getting comfortable

Accedo is another company for whom the consistency of the voice experience remains an enduring preoccupation. It’s an expectation driven in no small part by the growing familiarity of the audience with hands-free technologies, as head of sales and marketing Alex Wilkinson notes: “People are feeling increasingly comfortable with the ‘zero hands’ approach, whether it’s asking Siri to book an appointment or Alexa to show a programme on Amazon Prime.” Simultaneously, the underpinning technologies “have come a long way – be that in terms of understanding commands and voices, or comprehending voices that might be in a different part of the room or when there is another person talking.”

A series of projects with major broadcasters and voice assistant developers has sharpened Accedo’s own expertise in this area. Specific projects include a collaboration with Channel 4 to deliver the ‘All 4’ voice command interface for Google Assistant. Required to build and implement a “robust solution in a short timeframe”, Accedo developed a Google Assistant-enabled Chromecast application, allowing users to navigate ‘All 4’ by using voice commands. Subsequently, the operating capability of the Channel 4 on-demand service increased to more than eight platforms following the voice command app update implemented by Accedo.

Invited to consider the future of voice search, Wilkinson points to continuing refinement of accent recognition – such as the BBC’s own Beeb voice assistant, now in beta phase and developed with a desire for comprehensive understanding of regional accents – as part of a broader emphasis on conversational discourse. “Not only will [these technologies] be able to recognise voice and commands, they will also be able to understand context a lot more,” he says. “The conversational aspect of interacting with voice is where we see the next big steps taking place, really.”

ACCEDO Alex Wilkinson

ACCEDO Alex Wilkinson, head of sales and marketing at Accedo

In which context it seems entirely logical that Accedo is also pondering the question, “What does the user experience look like if you can only use your voice to discover content and so on? Where does it excel and where does it fall down? That’s something we’re thinking about now.”

Seamless engagement

With the complexity of voice-related platforms bound to increase further, the potential enabling capabilities of artificial intelligence are also under the spotlight. Notes Lorentzen: “AI and ML serve to put the consumer at the middle of all the action, allowing for deeper tailored opportunities to engage, which is a goal that siloed technologies struggled to make a reality. So we’ll likely see more seamless engagement, targeting and prediction used in a way that delights but also opens doors to other areas like retail and banking.”

Given these multi-application opportunities, it’s probable that continued improvements around security will be the other defining trend – especially in light of a more heightened security awareness following recent high-impact cyber- and ransomware attacks. It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that a mass hack of voice assistants would represent a doomsday scenario for the tech industry.

Hence the learning curve will continue to be fairly steep for all concerned. As Wilkinson observes, “in reality we are in the infancy of this area of technology [and how malign operators might seek to use it], so I am sure there will be a lot more steps taken everywhere to ensure that it becomes more secure.”