Digital Voice Assistants emerge as the New Wave of conversational commerce

15th May 2016
Digital Voice Assistants emerge as  the New Wave  of conversational commerce

Voice-based digital assistants  fuel  a hand-free, connected life with phone or PC, but how well do they understand you?
IndiaTechOnline Special Focus
Bangalore, May 16 2016: Five years ago, Apple gave voice to  iPhone 4s -- through Siri,  the  digital assistant  to whom you could talk, when  in need of some information. Since then  the Intelligent Personal Assistant or IPA  has evolved across multiple platforms.
When Microsoft  launched  the Windows 10 operating system last year,  it  came with its own  speaking assistant, Cortana,  in the US. By now it has been extended to India and on desktop,  tablet or Windows phone, you can   wake up Cortana  while searching  and ask her questions rather than typing them in the search box. We can understand why Microsoft took an extra year to activate Cortana in India:  she had to learn  the  many accents of Indian English -- and as I found, she is a good learner.  She could figure out almost all of what I spoke, as long as I did it in a slow and deliberate voice.  And they have  trained her to react like a true Bharati:  Asked if she liked Sachin,   she responds “He’s the God of Cricket who’s bowled me over.”  And she says  her favorites are kabbadi and golgappa.
If your phone   or tablet  runs on Android  4.1  or later version ,  you  can  click on the microphone symbol in the Google search box to bring  up the voice assistant.  Or you can  get the voice search function by installing the Google Now app, if you have a non Android phone.
Amazon  has just joined the  voice-based business -- with a slightly different focus. It has developed a hand-free    20 cm-high, cylindrical speaker called Echo which you can control through voice, courtesy  Alexa.  (See Image of the Day for illustration) Thanks to  seven microphones and beam forming technology, she can  hear you from  anywhere in the room, even while she is playing the music of your choice. If your home is smart enough, you can even have Alexa turn lights or microwave or air conditioning on or off.  Not yet available in India, Echo-Alexa  can be ordered in the US  for delivery in June ,  for the equivalent of Rs  12,000.  Eventually Amazon might integrate Alexa with its website.
For the next big thing in Voice assistants,  from the
makers of Siri, see our Image of the Day.
 Alexa, Cortana, Google Now and Siri  are being called the Fab Four of  Voice-based assistance -- and all of them have to grapple with  one big tech hurdle:   how naturally can users speak to be understood. The Web is replete with jokes of Siri  offering bizarre, cheeky  answers when she has doubts.  As developers refine the voice products, they will get better at the job  of processing natural language.
All these efforts are concentrated in   a  few languages, including English -- which touches only a small fraction of India's one billion plus  mobile phone subscribers.  There is a huge opportunity for innovation here:   giving voice to  desi language avatars of Cortana and company.  That will also address  the  huge challenge that so many   Indian users face --  using a language keypad. Software wizards,  the time to do IT has come -- because, like it or not,  Voice is the next big wave of the future. - Anand Parthasarathy