A layperson’s exploration of all things voice

Monthly Archives: February 2020

February 27, 2020

Practice Pointers for Alexa Flash Briefings

Hat tip to Witlingo’s Ahmed Bouzid for turning me onto a fantastic month-long webinar series about Alexa Flash Briefings from Vixen Labs’ Suze Cooper and BBC’s Peter Stewart. They have been posting a new video each day during the month of February explaining how to best produce a Flash Briefing. The topics they cover range widely and include:

– How to come up with your show name

– How long should your episode titles be

– Don’t bother with show notes

– How to stake your claim in a crowded audio field

– Why it matters that Google & Spotify have joined the personalized audio content revolution

February 26, 2020

Using Voice to Improve Employee Productivity

This Voicebot.ai podcast provides ten short interviews from the CES conference. At the 44:18 mark, Bret talks to Rain’s Nithya Thadani who discusses how voice is changing not just consumer behaviors, but employer-employee relationships. Among Nithya’s comments were these:

– Voice can be used for training & other ways to improve worker efficiencies.
– Bret talked about the consumerization of IT
– Enterprise is growing as companies continue to look at removing inefficiencies. Nithya talked about observing employees who have developed “hacks” – unexpected odd behaviors – in an effort to get around obstacles. And how these hacks can be rendered unnecessary to improve worker effectiveness.
– Interestingly, it seems like Rain has a few clients in the mindfulness industry – including HeadSpace which is looking a voice that knows that you’re on the move and recommends listening to a walking mediation talk.

February 25, 2020

Most Mobile Apps Will Be Voice Activated Within a Few Years

This Voicebot.ai podcast provides ten short interviews from the CES conference. At the 28:30 mark, Bret talks to WillowTree’s Tobias Dengel who discusses how voice’s big area of growth will be multimodal (typically meaning a combination of visual – think screen or text – and audio). Among Tobias’ comments were these:

– Most mobile apps will be voice activated in a year or two
– Distinguish speaking & listening: humans want to speak to machines but receive information visually, by screen, text, etc. Note that in Star Trek, the ship’s computer doesn’t talk back to someone who gives a command
– We want transactional convenience. At CES, there was a demo of someone ordering pizza. For starters, it’s better to order on an app than website because the functionality is better. With an app, it takes 45 seconds to place an order. With voice, it drops to less than 10 seconds. But if the voice app repeats back our order by audio, we lose benefit of that speed – but if instead it shows our order for confirmation by text or a screen, we can keep the transaction to 15 seconds. That’s a significant time savings.
– Another example at CES was discussed by the Mayo Clinic – right now, doctors take notes as they talk to you. It’s distracting and a waste of time. What if instead, your commentary to your doctor was recorded – relieving the doctor of the legal obligation to take notes.
– Another example is deciding to go to a movie – it’s much faster to review showtimes visually than hear them (who can forget Kramer in Seinfeld reading movie showtimes over the phone!), but then complete the purchase of tickets with a voice command.
– Bret notes that this is somewhat of a contrarian view, the view held by Tobias that we don’t need more immersive experiences – we need better transactions. Tobias notes that Google says this is year of screens paired with voice. The explosion of multimodal.
– Tobias opened with the psychological perception of voice. Right now, the problem with voice is people still don’t trust it – with the reason for the problem is that people are evaluating voice apps as humans and not as machines, and they need to change that view because voice apps aren’t humans.

February 24, 2020

My First Week-Long Silent Meditation Retreat

Just back from my first weeklong silent meditation retreat, something I’ve been heading towards after five years of engaging in a variety of mindfulness practices. It was good timing given I’m not working right now and had just spent two weeks at the beach in Florida. So I was sort of unplugged already.

The retreat was part of Jonathan Foust’s fabulous “Year of Living Mindfully” (you must check out Jonathan’s dharma talks available in podcast form). The retreat’s schedule was more structured than you might imagine. After the 5:30 am wakeup bell, we participated in ten different “sits” before we went to bed at 9:30 pm. Between the sits, we had ample time to mindfully walk or eat a meal. Being silent meant no reading or writing – and of course, no electronics – and we even had to avert the eyes of our fellow yogis as we moved about. We were focusing inwards.

Here’s a few items that might help give you the feel of the retreat – I went in fairly blind and had no idea this is how the experience would be:

1. Escape Fantasies – I understand how most would roll their eyes at the notion of a weeklong silent retreat. I was one of those for years. But it was a condition to being accepted to the “Year of Living Mindfully” program that I’m enrolled in. And I was totally game anyway because I’m in a state of ‘Just Say Yes’ to most things these days.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t apprehensive. I felt scared the entire drive down. What if I had a transformative experience and wasn’t the same? How could I bear being silent? What excuse could I find to leave early? Little did I know that those escape fantasies would never really dissipate. In my mind, I was looking for ways to leave during most of the week.

2. Sleeping with Others in Silence – As almost always happens in life, the things you spend time worrying about never come to fruition. Going in, I was worried about the sleeping arrangements. One of my biggest challenges these days is sleeping soundly. I’m often up before 5 am. And can’t get back.

I arrived to find that I would be sleeping in close quarters with three other guys, with six more upstairs in two small bedrooms. But I slept like a baby. Never even knew the name of a few of my roommates. And of course, I didn’t speak to any of them. The house only had two bathrooms – but getting into a bathroom was never an issue. Once we were awake, we were rarely there and folks took showers throughout the day.

3. Feeling the Power of Nature – In silence, your senses are heightened. They’re magnified even more if you’re meditating much of the day. Really hearing the sounds of nature. The hum of a bee swarm. The calls from a flock of geese. The breeze rustling on your cheeks. The crunch of your feet on the path.

Ah, the sights. The bright stars hanging in the nighttime sky. The sun pouring in at the break of dawn. The small ripples of waves folding over in the river. And then there’s the bodily feeling of it all. The trees calling to you, feeling their vitality as they become one with you.

4. The First Sit of the Day – Each sit felt different than any other. We are in a constant state of change. And on this retreat, I was definitely unsure what each day would bring. You were intensely aware of that. But having said that, the first sit of the day always felt a little special. Your legs feeling fresh (I would often sit in lotus position – many sat in chairs). Feeling your present. A little excited about what that day might bring.

5. The “Unplugged” Maelstrom – The first few days of a retreat can be particularly challenging. Your mind – and body – becoming accustomed to being unplugged. Letting all that stimulation – all that stress – go. I experienced a loud hum by the afternoon of the second day, followed by a migraine, some paranoia, as my reality emerged. By the third day, that type of tumult had faded away.

6. The Pleasures of Mindful Eating – Our diet consisted of simple plant-based meals. Luckily, my diet going in was fairly healthy – so my body didn’t experience much of an adjustment on that front. The huge adjustment for me was the pace of eating.

We weren’t instructed to do so – but the group quickly fell lockstep into a habit of eating quite deliberately. Placing a small forkful of food in your mouth. Perhaps just a solitary bean. Setting the fork down to slowly chew. Taking a few long breaths before feeling the urge to do it again. Eating a salad could easily take over 20 minutes. Nowhere to be. Nothing to do. Just enjoy.

7. The Intensity of (Not) Eating Alone – I’d say the biggest surprise was the power of sitting with 60 people for a meal. All of us not looking at each other. Not talking. Each of us being so intentional in our actions. It would get emotional at times. It was wonderful.

8. Oh Yeah, The Silence – Noble silence. Another surprise was how easy it was not to talk. Not talking is much easier than giving up the cell phone. The newspaper. The TV. And we did talk some. We met in small groups with a teacher every other day to discuss our experiences so far. We chanted at the end of the last sit of the day. And we were offered the opportunity to ask questions after the nightly dharma talk.

9. The Sangha – A big part of the experience is that you’re not doing it alone. You’re part of a like-minded community, the sangha. So even though you’re not communicating, you really feel connected. More & more as the week progresses. Interconnected energy. I’m lucky because this group will see each other again since we’re all in the same year-long program – it will be interesting to finally meet the people that I silently observed for a week.

10. The Profound Shift Towards The Real You – I’m purposefully not writing too much about the details of my actual experience because each person will have their own. And if I attend another retreat, I’m sure it will be far different than what transpired this time.

I can tell you that after the narrator – the stories – in my head became fainter, I could more clearly see my reality. I felt lucid in a way that I don’t remember feeling before. I not only could access long-forgotten memories, I could access the feelings associated with them with a rich texture. Almost see the colors of them. The ‘feel’ of them.

It was a beautiful experience. A brutal experience. I cried more in a week than I have in decades. Given that this retreat’s type of meditation practice was body-focused (ie. vipassana), I was acutely aware of how my feelings would manifest themselves in my body. Facing my reality, I was able to uncover answers to questions that I didn’t realize that I should have been asking. More importantly, I became aware of a host of inquiries that I will be unpacking for the foreseeable future.

So to sum it up, I felt like I lived more in a week than I might in a year. I felt ‘woke.’ Which truly wasn’t easy. For me, things got harder as the week wore on. Not easier. But that was this particular retreat for me. It easily could be different next time. Knowing that you’re going to die, how do you want to live?

Broc Romanek

February 14, 2020

How “Voice” Isn’t Anywhere Near Ready to Be “Conversations”

In this podcast, Voicebot.ai’s Bret Kinsella talks with John Kelvie from Bespoken about how “domains” will replace voice apps. It’s an interesting discussion – albeit a little hard to follow at times – so I recommend reading John’s blog about this concept before you listen to the podcast. Here’s an excerpt from the blog:

If you want to talk to someone, call your Mom. If you want to build a voice experience:

– One-shot is preferred
– Where one-shot is impossible, quick, contextual follow-ups are the next best option
– As a last resort, attempt an extended multi-turn dialog

Is this to say that extended interactions are a complete failure? Absolutely not! But describing them as conversations misses the point. How are they not conversations?

– They are not open-ended
– They lack important context – such as body language, intonation, emphasis, and past interactions
– They have very poor understanding – both in terms of speech and intent recognition

All of these things are likely to improve radically over a five to ten-year time horizon. But 12-18 months? Not so much. Almost certainly not enough to change what is feasible for most implementers.

February 12, 2020

Food Network’s Push Into Voice

In this podcast, Voicebot.ai’s Bret Kinsella talks with Tim McElreath from Discovery and Food Network (at the 25-minute mark about the “deapplication” of Alexa Skills and voice assistants). Tim describes how the Food Network has multiple channels of content – which are all interconnected – and how that poses a challenge for his company using voice. He notes he’s in discussions with Amazon about how to unpack all of this. Right now, the arrangement they have with Amazon is a hybrid of the traditional voice model – for example, they offer live cooking classes and a customer can use an Alexa Show to see the schedule of classes visually.

Tim explains his prediction of “deapplication” so that brands may keep their first-party position and also orchestrate what they do. Tim notes that “deapplication” applies mainly to those that have a mix of content types like his company does (ie. different mediums and platforms). But skills themselves are still valuable as are self-contained solutions. This may sound a little confusing…it is…

February 11, 2020

More Brands Develop Proprietary, Niche Smart Assistants

RAIN has posted its list of predictions for this year – including this one:

On the heels of Beeb, Erica, and Hey Mercedes, 2020 will see brands in many industries seeking more control over their voice assistant footprint – spanning data and the customer experience – in the form of creating “owned” voice assistants in their brand’s image. There will be another set of major brands – from automotive to consumer electronics, financial services to QSR – that introduce their own voice agents, with their own personas and voices, in the year to come.

The Voice Interoperability Initiative will begin to connect these more disparate, specialist assistants with more generalist intelligences like Alexa, so as to make them more useful in more places.

February 10, 2020

Voice Makes a “Super Bowl” Splash

I’m old enough to be permanently burned out about anything related to the Super Bowl. But I did watch it this year – and I saw how voice was featured in more than one ad. Here’s a summary from the “Rain” agency:

Two days out from the Super Bowl, we are at a good distance to analyze voice’s presence during marketing’s biggest night. In our 2020 predictions piece, our first prognostication was that voice would play a large role in cultural moments starting with the Super Bowl. Reviewing the slate of multi-million dollar ads, we see Amazon wanting Alexa to be seen as an everyday utility, Google tugging on heartstrings by highlighting its Assistant “remember” feature (both ads can be seen here), Snickers poking fun at smart speakers’ perceived contribution to the surveillance state and Coca-Cola using voice as a sampling channel for new products.

Although we have yet to see voice-specific CTAs or real-time giveaways take center stage at the Super Bowl, the presence of voice assistants during the big game’s commercials show how ingrained in culture they have become.

February 5, 2020

Enterprise Marketing Moves Towards Voice

In this podcast, Voicebot.ai’s Bret Kinsella talks with Jeff McMahon, Voicify’s CEO about how voice – and chat bots – can be used by enterprise marketers. Here are some of the points made:

1. Try to think of voice as a way to unlock existing content. Companies tend to have a lot of content buried deep on their sites that aren’t discovered much. Or maybe even not that deep but tend to be the kind of companies whose sites aren’t visited (eg. utilities & customers researching their usage).

2. We all will soon enough be digging into dynamic content more easily because voice is so frictionless. For example, the ability to easily access your own healthcare records.

3. At the 24-minute mark of the podcast, there is a discussion about leveraging your existing CMS, as content is more easily discoverable.

4. At the 32-minute mark of the podcast, there is a discussion about how commerce will soon be flourishing by voice – this year. Jeff gave some examples and noted how stored credit cards are now easily accessed by voice, which solves the problem of how to pay. Both Amazon Pay & Google Pay now permit third-parties to make transactions using their services – this is a game-changer. At the 51-minute mark, Jeff delves deeper into examples of what companies are doing now.

5. Jeff predicted an eventual boom in the use of voice for commerce, similar to how it has evolved for the Web (lots of doubters at first, then some slow movement – and then eventually more than most would have thought possible). Some although some companies might start with voice for engagement purposes, they eventually will likely migrate to voice commerce too.

6. Jeff noted how many of us want human-like interactions, but not with an actual human. Ain’t that the truth!

February 4, 2020

The State of Voice: “Confusion” Reigns

In this podcast, Voicebot.ai’s Bret Kinsella talks with Maarten Lens-FitzGerald (the “Dutch Cowboy”) (at the 38:40 mark) to get the perspective of how voice will fare in 2020. Here are some of the points made:

1. Last January, Maarten predicted that 2019 would be the ‘year of boredom’ in voice. Other than the negative stories about privacy (or lack thereof), Martin’s prediction became fairly true.

2. Maarten talked about two types of confusion – for users and for organizations.

3. For users, there will be confusion because of three things: 1. the “walled garden” where each major voice provider has their own ecosystem that isn’t necessarily compatible with others; 2. existing voice users go “deeper” with their voice experiences and getting beyond playing music and checking the weather can sometimes lead to failed experiences; and 3. the laggards to voice will tend to be those that are less tech savvy and will need better instruction.

4. Before the Web in the mid-’90s, walled gardens existed in the online world (eg. bulletin boards), but the birth of browsers broke that down. Walled gardens still exist for mobile. Walled gardens for voice not likely to break down anytime soon because the major players have invested billions and don’t have an incentive to collaborate on unifying standards. But users are beginning to break down that wall a little bit (eg. using Amazon’s Echo Buds with their Apple iPhone). Still too early for most users to live with just one major player’s ecosystem.

5. Organizations are confused about the ROI for voice. So its a belief-based technology right now. You’ll need someone convincing the boss with creative numbers and good storytelling. Too hard to tell yet what voice works best for – is it customer service? Content? We don’t know yet. In a way, voice faces the same type of challenge that augmented reality does.