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Personal voice assistants useful, but adoption slow

Lack of specific use case and low user education efforts mean personal voice assistants unlikely to gain widespread use anytime soon, observers say.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Personal voice assistants (PVA) such as Apple's Siri could represent the next big thing in the tech industry, but lack of defined use case and difficulty in collating all the world's spoken languages into a database mean widespread uptake of the tech unlikely to be soon, observers noted.

Vikas Chanani, industry analyst for ICT Asia-Pacific at Frost & Sullivan, said that as a technology, the PVA is the "next computing paradigm shift" in the mobile devices space.

"Introducing artificial intelligence (AI) to a smartphone in the form of the PVA is a big leap toward how we'll come to communicate with devices, and opens up a plethora of opportunities for all of us," he added in his e-mail.

Basic capabilities such as placing phone calls, sending SMS (short message service) or e-mails, and setting reminders are already available with existing PVAs, but these are only "the tip of the iceberg", the analyst noted.

He said beyond mobile phones, the technology could also be integrated into computer games, automobiles, navigation devices, music players, TVs and home appliances. Chinese PC manufacturer Lenovo, for example, had launched its K91 Smart TV that comes equipped with voice control features, earlier this month.

"Companies and developers are working to harness each bit of this technology, finding ways to integrate conversational voice interactions into products, applications and services [that will] enhance the capabilities of PVA going forward," Chanani stated.

"The personal voice assistant is no flash in the pan. We're talking about another technology revolution which will have implications on several industries and even human society in the way we communicate and perform our day-to-day activities."

Tang Pin-Chen, research analyst at Canalys, concurred. He noted that PVAs could "change the way we work, how we use our devices, and enhance the user experience" in the future.

That said, businesses will have to invest a significant amount of time and money in order to realize the potential, he added in his e-mail.

Siri sets the tone
Both analysts pointed out that while voice assistance is not new to the field, Apple has given the technology a boost when it introduced Siri alongside its iPhone 4S in October last year.

Chanani said with Siri tightly integrated with Cupertino's iOS platform, it made the tool more user-friendly and helps it recognize human, conversational speech commands unlike other voice recognition tools then.

Tang added that Siri has made interactive AI part of the user experience rather than just having a device that obeys simple commands with limited response.

"With Apple championing this innovation…interactive voice assistants will become a standard across mobile platforms in the near future because competitors do not want to be left behind," he surmised.

Web titan and rival Google was reportedly working on its own PVA for the Android platform, codenamed Majel. Developers, too, have been populating the Android Market with Siri clones, according to an earlier report by PC World.

Mass adoption not likely soon
There are barriers to the widespread use of these voice assistance apps, though, said Tang. This is because such apps need a well-defined usage scenario, which is currently limited to just the few such as navigation while driving, scheduling appointments and text messaging, he noted.

"Consumers are still not taking to the idea if using personal voice assistants, and prefer to do the input themselves since it is faster and easier," the Canalys analyst stated.

PVAs are also dependent on the ambient quality of the surroundings, he added, saying that a poor setting would mean the app would not clearly and accurately pick up speech commands.The vast number of accents and languages spoken in the world would mean that such apps would require a huge database of information in order to work universally, Tang stated.

"Personal voice assistant apps do possess untapped innovation potential but these limitations mean [the technology] will not be dominating headlines in the short term," he concluded.

Mobile app developers ZDNet Asia spoke to also expressed similar reservations. Chua Ziyong, a Singapore-based Android developer and CEO of mobile solutions company Stream Media, said while Siri has given Apple a "huge edge" and PVA looks set to be the next big thing, this will not happen in the immediate future.

He said in an e-mail that the technology is only just maturing, and standards will need to be created for integration and interoperability with other appliances.

"The question is always about reliability. Most voice products in the market are not reliable, and the high percentage of false positives and failures leads to consumer frustration and reduced adoption," Chua explained.

He also pointed out that users had to be "educated" on how to speak in specific tones, accents, or words to get the product to work, which further limits the adoption and use case for PVAs.

Karen New, CEO of mobile app development company Omnitoons, added that the accuracy of voice recognition has not yet reached 100 percent, considering that accents and colloquial terms will need time to be indexed.

People would also need to get used to talking to machines more often, which most find "weird" to do so in public places currently, she noted.

Hence, Chua said it may take "another two to three years before we see a reliable and intuitive use of this technology".

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