It seems like little time has passed between “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” and “Alexa, turn on the lights.” Where Voice Assistants (VAs) once were at the “final frontier"; today they’re in homes, cars and pockets worldwide, with an estimated market value of $2.68 Billion.
Voice Tech and Kids
As a kids’ research and digital consultancy, Dubit is looking carefully at voice control and how it will influence children’s entertainment and learning. In an overwhelmingly crowded media marketplace, can it help them surface the content they want? What is the proper balance between VAs as facilitators of play and storytelling, without getting in the way of social and family interaction? What are the privacy implications of voice activated devices?
Amazon’s Alexa “skills” marketplace already features apps ranging from relaxing sounds and white noise to help children sleep, to more complex games such as running a lemonade stand through voice controls, teaching kids basic maths and entrepreneurship.
For older kids, Bethesda even released a version of choose-your-own-adventure game Skyrim with Alexa as dungeon master.
The beautifully-named study “Hey Google, is it OK if I eat you?” examined how children interact with various VAs. It found that younger children preferred more emotive hardware with a face, rather than a screenless, cylindrical device.
Younger children were also far more likely to perceive the VA as neutral or less intelligent than them. They reacted in particular to limitations in the VA’s language comprehension, and had limitations in forming answerable questions. Older kids judged the VAs’ intelligence to be greater than theirs, based on their ability to recall facts. The majority of children sampled found the VAs to be friendly and trustworthy, with Google Home being most “friendly.”
Another 2018 study looked more generally at use cases and frequency, with Alexa. Again, age determined whether the device use was more social or informational. Older participants were more likely to play Alexa’s games and enjoy its humour, while younger children frequently used Alexa to tell the time (an ability they hadn’t yet perfected). For the younger children, Alexa’s jokes were too sophisticated, focusing on word play.
At present, manually typed searches are often more precise than spoken inquiries, but the youngest users aren’t yet able to type. Current generation VAs are built for easy searches, personal organization, and basic information; however, survival of the fittest will favor the smartest VAs that accommodate complex tasks.
Beyond stand-alone smart speakers, VAs work effectively with smartphones and other screens. Many young people are just realizing that they carry a voice assistant in their pocket, and many people are still slightly embarrassed to interact with their smartphones in public. In the privacy of home, however, some people have even formed slight emotional attachments to their voice assistants.
Of course, privacy is a massive issue for VAs and smart speakers, as they are always on and always listening. Gaining users’ trust that their children are not being monitored and monetized will be critical to families’ acceptance.
Hardware and Software
Amazon, Google and Apple assistants all offer similar functionality, allowing the user to take voice notes, search the internet and activate apps.
In homes, the Amazon Echo rules at present with a whopping 61% market share, and Amazon continues to innovate around the core voice services, integrating a screen into the smartspeaker for the Echo show. Google Home and Apple’s Homepod control the majority of the remainder.
Apple’s Siri was the early entry in 2011, and brought mobile voice activation into the mainstream. It has lagged behind in home adoption, but more apps are slowly coming to the Homepod, owing to the SiriKit development program.
Amazon’s Alexa (2014) quickly dominated home voice technology, in large part driven by accessibility to third-party developers. Thousands of skills have been released to Amazon’s dedicated Alexa marketplace.
Google’s assistant is a hybrid: it accesses a significant pre-existing user base through Android smartphones, but also has a growing market with Google Home.
Voice technology has the potential to transform almost any aspect of life, though that transformation will be more subtle than with immersive technologies like AR and VR. Voice commands will provide a smooth technological experience throughout the day, replacing manual searches for functions across multiple devices. Children can surround themselves with stories and games wherever they are, and dig deep into topics they’re passionate about with a voice-activated research assistant.
Gone will be the days of fiddling with the alarm app on your phone before you go to bed, or searching for favorite morning wake-up music. Everywhere you are heard will be your office, your store, your playroom, and your personal assistant.
The walls really do have ears.
This is a guest post from Summer Research Intern, Milan van Heerden - undergraduate at The University of Lincoln. For summer placements and graduate schemes, please contact Steph (firstname.lastname@example.org).