A layperson’s exploration of all things voice

Monthly Archives: February 2019

February 28, 2019

How Long is a Good Story?

As noted in this article, Alexa has a variety of skills that turn her into a story teller, from calming bedtime tales to spooky horror stories. You can listen to interactive tales that you influence by answering questions, playing a character – or even directing the action. Pretty cool stuff – and we’ll review some of that amazing stuff in the near future.

But for now, the question is “how long is the optimal story?” In a sense, I equate that with “how long is the optimal podcast?” One potential problem with both voice assistants and podcasts is that there is no mandatory cut-off. Although that allows for creators to be creative, I find that too many podcasts take that liberty and run with it. Too many run near the hour-long mark.

In today’s society, with such short attention spans – and so many forms of entertainment, information & education available – time almost always is of the essence. My fallback position in taping my own podcasts – nearly 500 over a decade – is that “shorter is always better.” Most of my podcasts are under 12 minutes. I try not to ask my guests more than 4-5 questions. And to be honest, I wish they were no longer than 5 minutes. But that can be hard to accomplish with two people engaged in a dialogue. So consider this – the average, one-way commute in our country is 26.1 minutes. I would definitely shoot for that to be the cap when taping your podcast or story…

February 26, 2019

Can You Select the Gender for Your Voice Assistant?

A friend recently remarked that Apple & Amazon are sexist because their voice assistants are female. She wanted a voice like Burl Ives, the narrator for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I can see why she feels that way – and I thought it was easy to change the voice on her devices to male.

For Amazon, I was wrong. It’s true that it’s easy to change the “Polly” voice. But all of the options that Amazon provides are female. Changing the voice actually involves changing the language that the Echo uses. It just so happens that for the English language, you have a variety of options that have accents – United States, Canada, India, Australia/New Zealand and United Kingdom. Here’s the instructions on how to change your language for Alexa.

For Apple, there’s better news. You can switch the gender of Siri to male – as well as to various accents. In fact, Apple’s default voice for Siri is male in some countries. Here’s the instructions on how to change your language for Apple.

Note that if you pick an accent that is not yours – say speaking English with an Indian accent – the voice assistant is not likely to understand you in some cases if your own accent isn’t Indian. And for laughs, see this clip of Fred Armisen on the “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” – at the 1:10 mark – for his impression of accents in the US through the decades. It’s hilarious…

February 25, 2019

Who Are the Big “Smart Speaker” Players?

Which providers are doing well with their voice assistants? To some extent, it depends on which country you’re talking about. One thing to note, you’ll recognize all of the names on the list as this is a field drawing most of the tech giants.

Per this “voicebot.ai” report, this is the global race:

– Amazon’s global smart speaker sales share rose in Q4 2018 to 35.6% compared to 31.9% in Q3 2018
– Google’s smart speaker sales also rose between Q3 and Q4 from 23% to 29.9% and narrowed the gap with Amazon
– Apple’s share of smart speaker sales declined to 4.2% from 4.9% in Q3, but its 1.6 million units sold in Q4 generated more than $500 million in quarterly revenue
– Smart speaker sales grew 70% in Q4 compared to Q3 2018 and rose more than 100% over Q4 2017
– Strategy Analytics says there were more smart speakers sold worldwide in Q4 2018 than in all of 2017

And according to this “voicebot.ai” report, the battle looks like this in China:

– Alibaba accounted for over 40% of all smart speaker sales in China in Q4 2018, up from about 37% in Q3
– Baidu matched Xiaomi’s relative market share in Q3 and solidly surpassed it in Q4 at 32.4% to 26.5%
– In the first quarter of 2018, Alibaba and Xiaomi accounted for 94% of smart speaker sales in China, but Baidu upended the duopoly and now exceeds 30% of smart speaker sales turning the current competition into a three-horse race

February 22, 2019

How We’re Shopping With Our Voice Assistants

Recently, OnBuy.com (a UK company) issued this report (based upon “voicebot.ai” findings) about how we’re using our voice assistants to shop in the USA. Here’s five things to know:

1. Everyday household items (25%) are the most ordered products through voice-assistants

2. We’re least likely to use a voice-assistant to locate and give our business to a local service, such as a hair cutting or dry-cleaning outlet – with only 4% currently doing so

3. The aspect that consumers most like about using a voice-assistant to shop is that it is hands-free (27%)

4. The biggest apprehension that shoppers have about utilizing a voice-assistant to buy goods or services is that a lot of them do not yet feel entirely comfortable shopping by voice (32%)

5. Interestingly, 31% would like an integrated commerce experience by using a voice-assistant to help them locate products as they navigate inside a store

February 21, 2019

Cool Stuff! The “Animal Game”

Recently, I was visiting a friend with a 7-year old named “Ryan.” They had just received an Echo Dot as a holiday present (didn’t everybody). Ryan asked Alexa to play the “Animal Game” first thing after he woke up.

The game is a version of the old-fashioned “21 questions.” You think of an animal. Then Alexa asks questions – and you answer “yes” or “no” to narrow down what it might be. It’s pretty cool stuff & Ryan was thrilled playing it. Sometimes the skill throws in a fun fact at the end.

The key to playing though is that you really need to know the animal that you think of – because when Alexa asks a question, you need to be able to tell Alexa whether she is correct or not. Like one reviewer said, like all software, it’s “garbage in, garbage out.” If you find Alexa isn’t guessing your animals correctly, it’s probably you – not the skill.

According to the description by creator Azalea Labs – through this skill – Alexa knows over 300 hundred animals. But Ryan knows more – he choose the “aye-aye” and stumped Alexa.

I can see how all sorts of takes on “21 Questions” would be popular using voice assistants. One reviewer noted how this game is based upon one of the first text-based games to demonstrate machine learning – but that the “Animal Game” doesn’t have the capacity to learn new animals like those machine learning experiments did. Given Alexa’s difficulty with handling “free form” text, it’s understandable.

February 20, 2019

Driving: How Are We Using Voice Assistants?

Although some newer cars have voice assistants built into them, many more drivers use the voice assistants in their smart phones when they’re in the car. But how are drivers using voice these days in the car? According a “voice.ai” report, the top five uses are:

1. Phone calls – 74%
2. Navigation – 50%
3. Texting – 41%
4. Music – 29%
6. Restaurants – 18%

So when driving, the use of voice is dominated by communicating, navigating & playing music. Which is somewhat different than how we use voice outside of the car. I believe the types of uses outside the car will continue to evolve, but I’m not sure how we use voice inside the car will change all that much in the future…

February 19, 2019

You Know It’s Mainstream When It’s on a TV Sitcom…

A good sign that something new truly has arrived & firmly obtained a foothold within the public consciousness is when it’s prominently displayed in a TV sitcom. I don’t watch many sitcoms – but I heard on a podcast that voice assistants were popping up all over them.

For example, Episode 13 (“Whanex”) of “Modern Family’s” latest season – which aired a few weeks ago – does just that. In this episode, Clare – the CEO of Pritchett’s Closets, which recently merged with a tech-savvy hipper company – is asked to use her voice for their “virtual closet assistant” (embedded in their new “smart closet” prototype) at 6:45 of the episode.

So the “voice prompts” – the term used in the episode” – are changed from Christopher Walken to Clare. At the 7:30 mark, her dad – Jay – steps into the new prototype and unknowingly interacts with the closet’s voice assistant, thinking it’s Clare talking to him. It’s not that funny really – but it illustrates my point.

The other day I heard someone describing a recent “Southpark” episode that pokes fun at Google Assistant & Amazon Echo owners. Voice has become a prominent part of pop culture already, no doubt…

February 18, 2019

What’s a “Polly Voice”?

Wow. You know we are in the early innings of “voice” when you hear a term thrown around like its a common term at a voice conference. Yet, when you Google it – there are no results that show it! That just happened to me when I searched “polyvoice.” Now it’s true that the proper search term should have been “polly voice” – but still, you would think other folks would have made the same mistake as me and something would have shown up on Google as “polyvoice.” Anyway, I digress…

“Polly voice” is better known as “synthetic voice.” Synthetic voices sound like a human voice – quite lifelike. They can be created in different languages and accents. The term “polly voice” probably comes from Amazon, who provides a variety of synthetic voices from its “Amazon Polly” console.

Here’s five things to know:

1. Most synthetic voices are created using a text-to-speech (TTS) system, which converts normal language text into speech.

2. A less common alternative is a system that renders symbolic linguistic representations like phonetic transcriptions into speech.

3. A computer system that creates synthetic voice is called a “speech computer” or “speech synthesizer.” And can be implemented in software or hardware products.

4. Apple’s Siri is a synthetic voice. I’ve heard a number of people wonder who was the original voice behind Siri, thinking that person has earned big royalties. The answer is “no one” – as it was created using a blend of different voices.

5. The most well-known synthetic voice for a human is the one used by Stephen Hawking. His voice was created in the 1980s – and when he was told that he could upgrade his voice to something smoother as technology evolved, he refused because he felt that his antiquated synthetic voice was indeed his authentic voice.

February 15, 2019

Can Voice Assistants Help With Loneliness?

Will your voice assistant(s) become your best friend? Don’t laugh. Like dogs, cats & other pets, they may be giving you the unconditional love you seek as they become more sophisticated. Who can forget Joaquin Phoenix in 2013’s “Her”? Anyway, they may provide some help to those that feel lonely – which is pretty much everybody.

Anyway, at least three universities – Saint Louis University, Northeastern University and Arizona State University  – installed smart speakers in some (or all) of their dorm rooms last year. During his keynote at the “Alexa Conference” last month, Bret Kinsella of “voicebot.ai” noted that the schools were finding an increased general sense of happiness and other well-being benefits from the speaker installations.

And that’s even with the interaction with the speakers being fairly limited in some cases. For example, per this set of FAQs, Saint Louis U. restricts the Echos they installed to providing only public information, such as campus events & sport schedules. They are not allowing any personal information to be involved. I imagine once more “freedom of voice” is permitted, students will use their Echos much more often. And maybe even become friends…

February 14, 2019

Smart Speakers: Fastest Growing Technology of All-Time!

I bet this comes as a surprise to most. “Smart speakers” are the fastest growing technology of all-time! That’s pretty astonishing for those of us that have lived through the Internet boom of the late ’90s & early ’00s. Before not too long, the term “voice” will be as well known as “social media” and the “Internet.” Voice assistants from big-name companies – such as Amazon’s Echo (and Show), Google’s Assistant (and Home), Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri – join the voice assistants embedded in many cars in leading the way.

Here’s five things to know:

1. 3.25 billion voice assistants are in use today

2. 8 billion voice assistants are predicted by 2023, a 25% annual growth rate

3. 30% of folks with a voice assistant use them once per week

4. 22% of these folks use them daily

5. These numbers can be a little hard to track because voice assistants are on so many devices now

Source: Juniper report per this “voicebot.ai” piece – and this page on “voicebot.ai” has all sorts of stats. And this report indicates that 35% of US households had multiple smart speakers in ’18, nearly double than the 18% the prior year…