The Growth of Digital & Virtual Assistants

Virtual Assistants

The Growth of Digital & Virtual Assistants

They are referred to by various names including digital assistants, virtual assistants, voice assistants, and most recently smart speakers. Odds are you or someone you know has or soon will have one in their home. You may already use one on your phone. It is another in a series of digital advances designed to either make your life more convenient, find out more about you or potentially both.

Rather than having to undergo pesky typing into a digital device, users can simply make their request by speaking out loud into or at least near enough to the device so it can “hear”. They are in smartphones, televisions, computers, and in our automobiles. While this article will begin with a general look at the technology involved, we will ultimately focus on in-home voice speakers and their amazing growth in popularity in recent years.

The History of Speech Recognition

Many don’t realize how long speech recognition technology has been around. It was first introduced by Bell laboratories with a simple device named “Audrey” in 1952. Audrey could recognize numbers spoken by one voice. In 1962, IBM introduced “Shoebox” that could recognize 16 English words. Slowly, speech recognition improved through the 1960’s where it included more and more vowels and consonants in a variety of languages.

In the early to mid-1970’s, the United States Defense Department got involved and the technology made great strides. “Harpy” resulted in a system that could mimic the vocabulary of the average three-year-old. Eventually, Bell Labs introduced a system that could recognize multiple voices.

The next advances in voice recognition were accomplished through predictive voice recognition, where words were recognized on patterns of speech. In 1987, a doll named Julie could mimic speech and was marketed as “…the doll that understands you.” If that sounds a bit creepy think about what we are placing in our homes today.

In the 1990’s, voice recognition became much more available for consumers as computer speeds advanced. It was often cumbersome, however, and software frequently had to be trained to the user’s voice. Systems were frustrating due to misunderstandings between the users and the software. Early phone editions were particularly aggravating as callers would have to repeat themselves incessantly to get the software to “understand” what they wanted.

With the growing popularity of the internet, Google helped the technology take a huge step with its Google Voice Search App for the iPhone in the 2000’s.

Other milestones in the development of voice assistants was in 2011 when IBM’s “Watson” appeared on Television’s “Jeopardy” program and Apple introduced Siri. Microsoft responded with Cortana in 2013 and in late 2014, Amazon introduced Alexa and The Echo. The Assistant from Google made its debut in 2016 as did the Echo Dot. Later that year, Google Home was launched.

Virtual Assistants

The Growth of Voice Speakers in the Home

So, here we are now, over 65 years after Audrey recognized spoken numbers and 55 years after Shoebox was demonstrated at the World’s Fair, Through that time, interest has been shown from everybody from doll makers to the US Department of Defense. It has been employed in our phones and our cars. Now, however, it is reaching a new level of convenience and/or voluntary intrusion, depending on your perspective.

Estimates are there are about 30 million Google Home and Amazon Echo voice speakers in American homes. Penetration is expected to reach 55% within the next four years. There are a growing number of companies like Lenovo, LG, Harmon Kardon, and even toy maker Mattel who have set out to grab a share of this rapidly growing market. What’s behind this growth, how is it impacting us, and what is next?

Convenience Trumps Privacy

Voice speakers or as some are now calling AI voice speakers are another example that people are not only willing to trade personal information and privacy for convenience but will actually pay for the privilege. Convenience is king and technology-based companies like Amazon and Google fully understand that. It also affords them something even more valuable than just the sales of these devices. The real value to these tech companies is the consumer data and insights they provide.

It is not unlike the sales of cheap printers in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Consumers were lured in by cheap printer prices and convenience, They may not have been aware of the expensive replacement cartridges that awaited them. Companies promoting voice speakers may, in fact, be making these devices more and more affordable to gain access and insight into consumer behavior and information.

What This Means for Marketers

So, if all of this history and growth in voice recognition and ultimately AI voice speakers is interesting, what are the practical aspects for those with websites who want to sell more of their products and services? It starts with understanding that much of these activities are search related. “Alexa, find me a local rock and roll radio station.”, “Siri, who has the best pizza near us?” or “Google, what is tomorrow’s weather going to be?” are basic searches, initiated by voice rather than typing. There are already over one billion searches conducted by voice every month. By 2020, just two years from now, it is predicted about a third of all searches will be conducted without a screen. More and more people are joining the voice search option and feeling more comfortable with it, including those using voice speakers. This may help you craft verbally friendly SEO efforts along with written keyword strategies.

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