I’ve been fascinated with voice speakers and voice assistant technologies since getting my first Amazon Echo device in November of 2014. But I had been using a voice assistant since 2011 with the introduction of Siri on my iPhone. And with 2021 marking the 10th anniversary of the voice assistant in our lives, I was very excited to have a LinkedIn Live conversation with Bret Kinsella, CEO and founder of Voicebot.ai, the leading source of information on voice technology on the web.
Bret shares his thoughts on the pandemic’s impact on voice adoption, why enterprise business application vendors have been slow to integrate voice-first tech into using their software, and what kinds of use cases are on the horizon that will get our attention sooner rather than later.
Below is an edited transcript from a portion of our conversation. To hear the full conversation click on the embedded SoundCloud player.
Pandemic’s impact on voice tech adoption
Bret Kinsella: The pandemic accelerated adoption but only in a couple of use cases and only through one device. And everywhere else, it actually probably ran counter to the growth in the industry, and I’ll break that down for you.
So people were at home more, and I have a lot of data on this because we do consumer surveys usually a couple of times a year in the U.S., UK, Germany, other places, and the first part of the year, a lot of last year, a lot of additional usage of smart speakers. So not only… There wasn’t actually a lot of new purchases, there weren’t a lot of new customers for smart speakers, but there was a lot higher usage. And particularly, they were using it more for recipes because everyone was cooking at home, games, and a couple of other things, video chat, for example. A real explosion last year was this smart displays, so the smart speakers with a screen on it so you can do video chat. Those went from about 15% of smart speaker owners up to over 25% in the U.S. in just a matter of six months or so. So what we saw last year was that a lot of people who had smart speakers bought more smart speakers.
The other area that we saw that there was more smart speaker use was smart home. People were at home more and they were looking for projects to do, and they bought a whole lot of smart home devices. And if you have a smart home device, one of the best ways to interact with it, or at least play with it and feel like you’ve accomplished something that’s very Star Trek-ing, is to use voice to control it.
So we had this limited growth, but one of the things that happened, I believe, is that we were starting to see voice expand on other surfaces more aggressively. And a lot of those programs slowed down because so many things slowed down. And I can tell you, there’s one other area that exploded in voice, but this is on the consumer side. And so, I would have expected to see more voice interfaces, independent or owned voice assistance from brands launched this year if it hadn’t been for that because a lot of people said, “Okay, I need to get back to what I’m focused on,” because you have to understand, and I know you do this, but I think it’s easy a year later to forget, but nobody knew if they were going to be in business in three months, right? So they had to just say, “Okay, what’s really important here?”
So I was actually more surprised at how many voice projects were sustained over the last year as opposed to being cut back. And so, a lot of them were, but I think there weren’t new initiatives that I would have expected and they weren’t the initiatives that I normally would expect to get funded at the end of the fiscal year in October, November, that would have started this year. A lot of that, I think, has been pushed back a year. So that’s the mixed bag on voice based on the pandemic and where we are right now.
Why aren’t more business applications “voice-first”?
Small Business Trends: From a user adoption perspective and from a fuller dataset and from a more accurate dataset, it seems like it’s a no-brainer that there would be more focus on this. But it seems to me… I talked to a couple of different vendors and I get briefed on a lot of stuff in the CRM space, and one of the standard questions I have is, “Where does voice fit into this in terms of the interface?” And more and more, I’m hearing, “It’s something that we have on our board. We’re listening to our customers first to see what their focus is,” and I’m thinking to myself, sometimes the customers need to be led a little bit to know what’s possible, and it doesn’t feel like that part of it is taking place. They’re more focused on the immediate focus of customers and not showing, “Well, this actually not only hits your immediate need, but take it to the next level.”
I was curious, are you starting to hear… Well, you’re dealing with the whole industry and the whole gambit of things. I’m just talking about this little slice. Let me ask you this because I don’t want to get the press myself here. What is the most exciting thing that you’re seeing coming out that eventually is going to hit the mainstream here?
Bret Kinsella: I will say, no, I’m not hearing from a lot of people who are in the web app world, right, and I think it’s because they don’t know. And if they do know, they think that it’s the assistant model with the conversation is the only way you can implement it, and that’s a pretty heavy model. You’ve got to hire a conversation designers, all these other things in addition to developers. We have some skill in that. Then afterwards, you have to manage the logs and all these other things.
There is this idea that you can just do voice data input, but I don’t think that message is out there yet. I believe that a year from now, a lot more people will know that. And maybe people like you will start to tell them that there’s an option there. There’s a couple of companies who are really working on this, but they’re just coming to market and it’s newer technology and it’s based on speed and all these other things, right? But this idea of data input is a real customer pain point for CRMs. And anything you can do to improve that, whether it’s with your staff who are your sales staff, your customer service staff, or your customers, I just think the value of these systems is going to go way up. So do I get excited by that? I think it’s inevitable, right? I think there’s other things that are more exciting.
Voice assistants with agency
Small Business Trends: Okay, let’s hear it.
Bret Kinsella: The thing that I’m most interested in, just in general, is assistants with agency. So assistants, they just do things for you when you’re not there. All right? So you can basically delegate responsibilities. They can maybe assume some responsibilities that you want them to do. And we’re starting to see a little bit of that but it’s just on the front end, but I think this is what people should look for.
The idea that you just ask something to do your bidding at any given time is great and there’s a convenience factor there, but this is the difference between putting your calendar on your phone and implementing Uber, right? Because this idea of an intelligent agent that has agency, that does things for you is not something we’ve seen in the digital world before, and it’s something that voice and the virtual assistant are particularly well-suited to do. So this is the new thing that I think people should be looking for. It’s going to take a couple of years to play out. We’ve seen some pieces of it.
So Google Duplex, a lot of people will be familiar with, that’s where Google will set up a hair salon appointment or restaurant reservation for you.
Small Business Trends: And freak everybody out at the same time back then, at least.
Bret Kinsella: Surprisingly, the only people who are freaked out were the media. I talked to people about this all the time and I was talking to people who had gotten calls at the time from restaurants, hotels, and stuff like that. And they’re like, “Yeah, this is fine.” It’s just like, “I want to do business,” right? So if it calls up and it says, “This is Google calling for such and such, could I book an appointment,” they’re like, “Yeah, I want that table to be full,” right? So the media was worried about it because what does this mean and are we treating people poorly and all these other things. It was like, “Okay, that’s fine. That’s a consideration.” I wrote extensively about whether it was actually legal in 11 states to do it, which I think is important consideration. But in the end, they started it out and people like it.
Maybe another interesting one that people probably missed is the Ring doorbells. One of the models of the Ring doorbell will talk to your delivery person for you when it comes to the door. You don’t have to train it to do that. And then, it’ll send you a message, it’ll give them instructions, and those types of things. So we’re seeing the front end of that. There’s also some things that will actually track your whole day and they’ll listen to you all day. These are very new. And you can say, “Hey, what was it that Brent said during my 2:00 meeting about this topic and over-
Small Business Trends: That is actually cool. Yeah, that’s cool. I like that.
Bret Kinsella: I know. It freaks people out. They’re like, “This thing’s going to listen to me all day,” and then you just give that example of like, “That would be pretty useful. I’d probably use that my whole life.” So we’re seeing that, which is really interesting. We’re also seeing, obviously, companies like HereAfter, the founder there, James Vlahos, who wrote a great book on the voice industry, created the Dadbot years ago. He basically memorialized his dad before he passed away. He got it all into a chatbot so he can talk to it and things like that.
Small Business Trends: Oh, that’ right.
Bret Kinsella: So now there’s a bunch of companies that are doing that, and some of them actually will do synthetic voice renderings of the person. So it’s not just like a chatbot, it sounds like your loved one. Some people think that’s kind of creepy. I think most people think, “Hey, that’s something potentially to cherish, almost like a scrapbook but it’s this interactive style.” So I think those are interesting. The third thing I would probably point out is virtual humans.
Small Business Trends: Okay. Virtual humans. Wow…
Bret Kinsella: Yeah. So I think most people think about this as just like the human-like figures on a screen and you interact with them, they speak and the lips move with the way that language goes, and that type of thing. And I think that’s true too. I also just throw robots in there too because I think some of those are very human-like or it could be an avatar that’s anthropomorphized or something like that. But I just believe that those are going to be a very big deal over the next year.
We’ve seen some really good implementations recently, technologies like GPT-3 and then the new Google LaMDA, I think, will head us in the same direction of being able to not just answer questions that the developers and designers anticipated, that they could answer for you, right, which is really how voice assistants work today. But they could actually just take any question and just mind some sort of amount of data and come back with inbreeding full answer. And I do believe that this idea that people have adopted the idea of an assistant, it’s disembodied, Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana, and a lot of people like it. There’s maybe a few people turned off by it, but for the most part, people like it.
But what we’ve seen in studies in other areas where they’ve added an avatar or a human-like, figure to these interactions, people like it more. They share more, they interact with them more. And so, I just believe that sometime in the next year, we’re going to see a really big event. There’ll be sort of like the Pokemon Go event was for AR, for virtual humans because the technology is getting so good. There’s some really interesting things being done.
We’re just getting started. It seems like 2014 when you got Alexa, that was what, seven years ago. It’s been almost 10 years, it’ll be 10 years in just a couple months since Siri launched.
Small Business Trends: That’s right.
Bret Kinsella: And then, it’s actually more than 10 years since the Siri app launched in the App Store before it became embedded in the LS. It feels like we were at the front end of this whole new wave of really interesting things that we basically just got through the training wheels phase and we’re about to start riding the bike. And pretty soon, we might be on a velodrome.
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This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.
I can get on board with voice tech, but I need full transparency about when/how it’s doing the things it’s doing. And guardrails to make sure it isn’t going rogue. With that in place I’d be willing to expand my usage.