By Sreeraman Thiagarajan
What do you think of when you picture humans talking to their devices and using voice to command machines? If you are like most of us, you are probably imagining a futuristic Star Trek like scenario where man-machine interactions occur as if by magic. But the reality is quite different, because voice-enabled assistants are already a part of our everyday lives, and while there is a fair bit of technical wizardry needed, none of it involves undertaking voyages to distant planets.
Back on earth, at my home, the voice-enabled Google Assistant has quickly become a familiar presence, and my dad, wife and son turn to it for help, multiple times a day. Appa, who can’t see too well without his reading glasses, calls out to the Google Assistant on his phone every time he needs to access some information without having to type. My son can’t seem to get over his curiosity and keeps asking the Assistant about astronomy and math, and I usually call out to ask for a recipe before making kitchen experiments!
Voice is intuitive, easy to use, and allows users to multitask. I can vouch for the fact that it is super helpful not to have to reach for my phone when I have atta on my hands, but without a doubt it is Appa who has the most fun engaging with Google Assistant. One of his favourite tricks is to try and outwit the AI powering the device, in new ways.
A long drive enthusiast, my dad loves to quiz the Assistant by asking for answers he already has. For instance, he loves saying, ‘OK Google, what is the distance to Kovilpatti?’, and nearly applauds when the bot responds with an accurate answer, depending on where he is. When he is visiting me in Mumbai the distance to Kovilpatti is 1,526 kms, and when he is at his home in Bangalore, Kovilpatti is a mere 523 kms away. My dad already knows this because he has been driving to and from Kovilpatti for 20 years now.
However, there is a lot of work that goes into generating these answers in a flash. Firstly, the voice assistant is contextually aware of the device location, secondly, it understands indic words in order to accurately pinpoint a small town situated along NH 44, the nation’s longest highway connecting Kashmir to Kanyakumari. And, thirdly and most importantly, it understands the intent behind the question and provides a meaningful response, all in no time.
The conversation doesn’t have to end there. You can ask follow up questions like, ‘How long does it take to get there?’ and you’ll hear the technology respond with the hours it takes to drive to the destination. If the 25-hour long drive is not your style, then feel free to follow up with ‘What about flights?’ to get flight options to suit your budget. What makes it so simple and magical is that you don’t have to say the name of the town again and again to get answers to your follow up questions. The AI is smart enough to understand and remember that you are still talking about reaching Kovilpatti.
If you think that all of this is made possible only by Google with enormous resources at its disposal, think again. Transformative voice technology is built using an open platform, so all of us can contribute to furthering the possibilities of voice technology, by building new conversational experiences to suit our local contexts and needs. Whether you are an automaker or consumer goods brand, an entertainment company, or an original content creator with an idea you wish to implement on voice, there is a place for you within the ecosystem. Not only is the voice technology platform open for developers to build and shape it as they please, the use cases of voice themselves are growing. With more and more people talking in their natural voice to their devices, voice technology is being shaped by people in unique and unexpected ways.
Where consumers go, brands follow. Brands today are observing this change in consumer behaviour and have begun offering Indian customers new kinds of products, services and experiences on a new platform. With voice becoming the new UI after touch, it is also creating a different kind of marketplace.
However, some of the brands we consult for need a little more convincing. With all decisions being data driven, a little bit of skepticism is only to be expected, but my narrative is borne out by hard facts and figures. According to IDC, Voice enabled devices and the ‘hearables’ market is growing at a healthy rate of 289%. This is good news for a whole lot of us, working to increase adoption of voice technologies, for business and consumers.
The story only gets better when you realise that India is uniquely poised to embrace voice technology, with 99% people accessing the internet from their phones, our country is very clearly a mobile friendly ecosystem, and android-first at that. Let me remind you that every android phone comes with voice technology built into it. Which means that people are able to simply begin using voice tech right out of the box, to search, buy, or seek help, without having to worry about buying a special device or downloading an app. Brands with strong mobile-first strategies who wish to tap into the voice enabled market, therefore, have a strategic advantage, in an Indian context.
Voice is enabling access even for users in India who cannot afford a smartphone. Voice technology works even on a simple Jio feature phone running KaiOS. Priced between Rs 700 to Rs 1400 price range, these phones are used by 100 million people. While these entry level phones don’t have the fancy capabilities of touch, they still come equipped with technology that is helping ordinary Indians in far-flung villages and towns use voice as their primary interface to navigate their phone and access a world of products and services.
Contrast this with a highly developed economy like the US, where there are over 100 million households with multiple voice assistants, embedded into different appliances and surfaces. You can control everything right from the porch lights to door cameras to the thermostat, using voice. But here, we Indians are using voice for an entirely different set of activities, relying on it to play devotional music, learn English, track orders on Swiggy and even play antakshari via Gaana Antakshari. Just say ‘Ok Google, play Gaana Antakshari’ and see what happens.
The possibilities, then, are endless and exciting. And brands looking for early victories in the voice space can simply start with what they already have, by sharing existing information about their business or brand and making it available in a conversational format, on any voice enabled device. As they move along this journey, brands can empower customers with self-serve features, such as letting them check their account balance or the status of their order, just by using the voice. For consumer facing brands and businesses targeting millennials, there are even more ways to cultivate customer delight. Create a podcast, curate a playlist, help your audience with interesting recipes, quiz them on their favourite topic, and give them a chance to participate in a contest, or simply help them get things done. All without lifting a finger. Because the power of voice technology means you can experience some magic, without moving off your couch. That sounds like a future I could get used to!
(Sreeraman Thiagarajan is CEO of Agrahyah Technologies and aawaz.com. He tweets at @sreeraman)