All posts by voicefirstlabs

What you didn’t hear on the Portal announcement

As you probably know by today, Facebook announced Portal yesterday, a smart display for video calls with Alexa integrated.

There are tons of articles on the web related to the announcement summing up three fundamentals: the privacy scandals the company has been surrounded this year, why choosing Alexa was a smart decision at this point and the focus on visual as oppose to another smart speaker. I’ll leave links at this episode notes. Go and check them out if you haven’t.

You might think, what is she going to say that hasn’t been said by the other stories. Hear me out, I have something to add to the conversation, pun intended.

Another bullet directed at Snapchat

I think this is also another shot at Snapchat. The company has been relentless in their competition with Snapchat (Instagram stories, Facebook stories and now Instagram name tag) and this is no exception. Portal smart display landing page first feature listed is Smart camera and sound followed by private by design. Sound familiar from Snapchat camera first mantra, right? Let’s continue.

With music, animation and augmented reality effects, Portal lets you get into stories like never before.

Portal is adding VR lenses to the calls, directed to a more leisure focused model that Facebook knows very well, which can also give them a differentiator point among the competitors. Targeting an audience that’s already used to lenses, that use them on a daily basis, combined with voice activation provided by the very familiar (homie) Alexa is the recipe for snapping (again, pun intended) those young users into the giant blue platform.

One detail that also deserves attention:

For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

I talked in the episode about the compression algorithms the Amazon Alexa team is working and the effects it might have for the voice activated internet of thing feature, and this quote, proves that Facebook is very aware of the users reaction to the privacy scandals, what users think and is alerting them: it runs local, does not call Facebook servers. Maybe Facebook is the first company to provide a truly offline smart assistant experience. Wait, it has Alexa built-in, never mind.

Payments through AI messaging service + social network = better smart display?

As I alway say, whether this strategy is going to play out or not, only time will tell. Truth is, Facebook wants in in the smart speaker race and in the home. And they want it now, as much they couldn’t wait any longer. I would expect that the patent Facebook filled in 2016 for conversational payments (Processing payment transactions using artificial intelligence messaging services), plus all the social network expertise will come together with Portal and Portal+ for a product that might change the course of the smart display race.

Let me know what you think in the comments of this post, on Twitter replying to @voicefirstlabs or on Instagram @voicefirstweekly. My name is Mari, I’m your host, stop scrolling down now and go and share this, like and engage. You know why? Because you love it and I love it. Best of the Tuesdays for all of you. I’ll be back tomorrow!

Recap of important Google Assistant recent updates

This week Google Assistant had several updates important enough to make it to my notes for episodes. Let’s start reviewing them.

Monetization

First, monetization, just a week after Amazon announced consumables API for Alexa Google released the ability to sell digital goods, a way for Action creators to offer digital subscriptions and goods to consumers. The novelty is in the digital part, as the API already offered physical products.

As a follow up the Google team also introduced a new sign-in service for the Assistant that allows developers to log in and link their accounts. According to TechCrunch: Starbucks has already integrated this feature into its Assistant experience to give users access to their rewards account. Adding the new Sign-In for the Assistant has almost doubled its conversion rate.

Book rides with Lyft or Uber

Starting this past Thursday Google Assistant users will be able to book rides through Uber or Lyft. Siri and Alexa already let you book rides on Uber and Alexa also in Lyft for some time now. Considering that Google has the map advantage, or, actually the ecosystem of apps advantage it was about time.

Voice access publicly available, an important step for accessibility.

The next update is Voice Access made publicly available this week. The app is tied directly to the Google Voice assistant, designed to make it easier for users to navigate a wider range of tasks via voice command instead of manual actions. It accomplishes that by letting users essentially translates a button push, page scroll or item selection into a voice command that Google Assistant can easily follow.

The Google Assistant mobile app gets more visual, aligning with smart displays

Google Assistant also got more visual last week: with a visual redesign of its Assistant experience on phones. Bringing more and larger visuals to the Assistant. The update aligns what users were already seeing on smart displays.

In addition to the visual redesign of the Assistant, Google also today announced a number of new features for developers. Unsurprisingly, one part of this announcement focuses on allowing developers to build their own visual Assistant experiences. Google calls these “rich responses” and provides developers with a set of pre-made visual components that they can easily use to extend their Assistant actions.

Acquisitions

Finally, Google acquired AI chatbot startup Onward, a “powered chatbot startup that creates a range of automated customer service and sales tools for business usage.”

That’s all for today. I miss some, but I think these are the most important ones, it shows how they are moving quickly in the space heads on. Exciting times to be alive. Hope the best day for you all.

I’m Mari, your host for VoiceFirst Weekly daily briefing, you can find me on Twitter as @voicefirstlabs and on Instagram as @voicefirstweekly./ You have a great day and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

Chatbot solving hard problems for students in Australia

The University of Adelaide built a chatbot to solve the dreading problem of thousands and thousands of students receiving their Admission Rank on the same day. The chatbot was built using only Oracle Autonomous Mobile Cloud Enterprise, a sheet with the formulas for the calculations for the admission rank and a list of high schools whose students are eligible for bonus points schemes. It’s a very precise task that the bot performed very well and saved the university staff from thousands of calls from students the same day wanting to know their bonus points. The chatbot was deployed to Messenger, because that’s where students are. “We capitalized on the engagement we were already having across Facebook”. Which at the same time potentiated students sharing their scores on the Facebook platform.

The prospect management team was shocked at how many students embraced the chatbot in its first year. “We would have been happy with 200,” Cherry says. “Instead, the chatbot held 2,100 unique conversations with students.”

A very illustrative example of conversational done right, for a specific task, for the users and context first. Resulting in a win for students and university staff alike.

The future is without doubt conversational and has a voice.

Parenting with Alexa and smart assistants

Voice Assistants have been at the forefront of parents almost since the beginning. From a kid who prayed to Alexa, to parents wanting the assistant to request thank you, prompting a response from Amazon. The latest update to Alexa address though questions saving parents difficult conversations with their kids (This is, of course, an overstatement). A recent update to the virtual assistant tool comes with a new mode called FreeTime in which Alexa knows to answer certain questions — like say, ‘Where do babies come from?’ —differently. In instances like that, Alexa can now simply respond ‘ask a grown up.’

Amazon even worked with child psychologists on some of the new answers that Alexa can give. According to the company, Alexa is constantly using questions and requests to ensure that she’s “always getting smarter.”

“Alexa isn’t intended to be a replacement parent or caregiver,” the company said in a statement. “So we believe it’s important we treat these answers with empathy and point the child to a trusted adult when applicable.”

One step further, parents can also set times during which Alexa will tell kids “Sorry I can’t play right now, try again later,” should their kids attempt to use the tool when they should be sleeping or doing homework. The FreeTime update will even encourage kids to say please and thank you before and after asking for things.

When asked Alexa, what happens when you die, she replies with: Sorry, I’m not sure.

FreeTime can be turned on using the Alexa app and is available on the  Echo, Echo Plus, and Echo Dot devices.

Alexa, saving parents since 2018. 

Mari

I’m Mari, your host for VoiceFirst Weekly daily briefing, you can find me on Twitter as @voicefirstlabs and on Instagram as @voicefirstweekly. Subscribe, like, share, engage. This is what we are here for! You have a great day and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

Skill connections in Alexa

Amazon announced yesterday that developers will be able to start a request in one skill, then have it fulfilled in another. The feature is officially called Skills Connections and is in Preview. As part of the blog post announcement Amazon outlined examples of connections available like printing by HP and schedule a reservation by OpenTable and later schedule a taxi reservation by Uber. It’s a way to pass information between skills to simplify customer tasks. For now users can only use printing with HP, Uber and OpenTable reservations.

Skill Connections is launching into a developer preview. This is highly expected and I’m sure will be highly regarded by developers and users.

What is the biggest take from this feature? For me is marketing. Once more skills can invoke others, imagine the ramifications, you could directly pass from a game to sponsor skill content and then back to your game again, providing a medium for both brands and developers of awareness and monetization. From all the latest announcements the Alexa team has made recently, this is set to have the biggest impact in skills discoverability. Keep a close eye on this one and the first applications built with it.

I’m Mari, your host for VoiceFirst Weekly daily briefing, you can find me on Twitter as @voicefirstlabs and on Instagram as @voicefirstweekly. Subscribe, like, share, engage. This is what we are here for! You have a great day and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

Omega voice assistant and Surface headphones

Will.i.am backed startup presented Omega, their smart assistant at the recently finished Dreamforce conference. Omega is set to compete with Alexa and Google Assistant although heavy geared towards music fans: in the presentation the assistant was shown playing tracks at request, before providing information about the artist playing and any upcoming gigs or live performances. I mean, seems like Spotify for smart assistants. Given this music focus we can safely predict that is likely to find Omega built in in bluetooth wireless headphones. Speaking of which Microsoft unveiled several Surface devices among which are the Surface Headphones with Cortana (obviously) and automatic pause and play. The headphones are set to be available later this year. With Omega smart assistant and Microsoft own Surface headphones is the tell tale of companies capitalizing from voice technology, or at least fighting for a place in the consumers heart.

You see my friends, this voice space that might have been called a fad, it nothing like it. Look at the different angles of the ones coming to the space are and draw your own conclusions.

I’m Mari, your host for VoiceFirst Weekly daily briefing, you can find me on Twitter as @voicefirstlabs and on Instagram as @voicefirstweekly./ You have a great day and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

Reboot the web with voice

Last week or earlier this week, the creator of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners Lee presented a project he has been working on in stealth mode: Solid, an open source project according to its author: “with the goal to restore the power and agency of individuals on the web”, is based in Linked Data and web annotation ontology. Anyways, why am I talking about this? In the FastCompany interview Lee referred to a voice assistant with the same principles, free, open source and decentralized. Its code name is Charlie, focusing on how people will own their own data. And goes along to explain how Charlie could be more useful on areas like health records, children’s school events or financial records. I talked here in an episode about smart assistant that are alternatives to the most popular ones backed by one of the big companies, among which was Snips, a smart assistant which differentiator is privacy built in.

Whether Tim Berners-Lee offering of a decentralized web will catch up or not time will tell. But also developers will tell.  Tim said that “Developers have always had a certain amount of revolutionary spirit” and this can be the opportunity to start something new and participate on a bigger mission for developers with an appeal for freedom and take control back from the web from corporations.

There are several aspects to be noted from the announcement, most of them are out of the scope of this podcast, for the topic we care, it’s really telling that when Tim decided to create a new platform for the web, it had voice from that start on in the strategy.

The intent is world domination

Said the WWW creator in a interview for FastCompany.

It seems that I keep missing Mondays the past two weekends! I have been traveling and it’s harder to find a quite place to record when you are traveling. As always, share this episodes and have a nice day. I’ll talk to you all tomorrow!

Amazon Alexa and sports stats

Amazon’s Alexa is getting smarter about sports — Just in time for the NFL season, Amazon has been stuffing Alexa full of sports knowledge. It can tell you the odds of the next NFL game and give you an update on your favorite teams. In the near future, Alexa will be able to give fantasy football fans updates on their players, and alert users when their teams are about to take the field.

Sports-related questions have become some of the most popular ones to ask Alexa in recent years, Jason Semine, principal product manager for sports information on Amazon’s Alexa team, said in an email.

Business Insider reports that the Alexa team has also been working to ensure that the intelligent assistant is able to respond to questions about sports events as they happen and to understand the context of particular inquiries.

“Our long-term goal is for Alexa to understand and be able to answer all questions, in all forms, from anywhere in the world.”

As you see, Amazon wants Alexa to be everywhere and to know everything. This is what having big goals means.

In recent weeks, Amazon has added a slew of new sports-related features to Alexa. Among them:

  • Answers to an assortment of trivia-related questions relating to sports history, records and statistics.
  • Updates on the latest injuries and transactions involving individual players or teams.
  • Predictions on who will win upcoming games, including the latest betting line.

But more importantly, Amazon will be more and more in your home, inserting the need in your life to ask all types of questions to their smart assistant, emphasis in sportswhich unites (or divides) us, but certainly always requires some data in the conversation. Pretty smart if you ask me.

Happy Sunday, and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprises

The same week Salesforce announced their Einstein voice assistant ahead of their annual gathering Dreamforce, Microsoft launched Cortana Skills Kit for the Enterprise for developers, to help businesses create custom voice apps for their employees and users, at Ignite, their annual gathering. This was expected, given the company strong stance on the enterprise. I have mentioned before that I see at this time Microsoft strategy in voice tech seems to be more focused on providing AI tools to developers, and again, you know what I’m gonna say developers are the currency for today’s platforms.
Cortana Skill Kit is currently available by invitation only. Invitations for companies and developers will be made available in the future.
According to a programme manager on Cortana’s team, the platform is powered by the Azure Bot Service and leverages Language Understanding from Azure Cognitive Services, allowing developers to create company-specific skills for Cortana using known and trusted tools.
As a proof of concept, IT developers at Microsoft used the enterprise platform to create an IT help desk skill that enables Cortana to file tickets for employees who are having computer problems and connect them to someone who can help.

How voice is changing software development

I’m very passionate about the process of software development and how it affects the product cycle. I read a blog post about people with physical disabilities using voice tools to program, so I was excited when found this article about the influence of voice technology in software development. Let’s see some of the ways software development is being affected by voice.

  • New development agencies are seeing clients request more and more voice capabilities, as well as old applications being upgraded with voice-activated functionality. But at the same time a bad interaction is worse than none at all. Lars Knoll, CTO at The Qt Company have said that “A badly done voice integration is probably leading to a worse user experience than not having one at all.”
  • The other one is to have into account the differences between gui design and voice interface design. It will be increasingly needed that voice-oriented developers understand the basics of pattern recognition and machine learning. That being said, the underlying development principles remain pretty much the same, as well as having knowledge of popular programming languages. In a GUI, the user’s eyes and mouse movements have been trained over several years of behavior. As a result, voice development is as much a product design challenge as an engineering problem.
  • The third way software development is affecting development is the fragmentation of voice platforms. You’ll need to make choices about developing independently for each platform (and your priorities) or taking more of a one-size-fits-all approach. I talked about it in the Voice Space Fragmentation (https://voicefirstweekly.com/flashbriefing/69/).
  • B2B companies, can’t ignore voice work much longer. With Salesforce announcement of Einstein voice assistant to their platform, plus Microsoft Cortana Skill Kit, plus voice assistants being more pervasive in the home, cars and mobile of users, there is only so long before users start asking: can I do it with my voice?  or why I can’t do it with my voice? 

There is also an increment in development tools available to code by voice, in combination with the advancements of speech to text recognition, we can see a new wave of tools, where you can have voice commands as actions that use speech to text for the actual code input. The Nature magazine has an interesting article I recommend you check in full: Speaking in code, it outlines how programmers from the Genome Aggregation Database (gnomAD) at MIT, which is used to explore genomic data are using voice coding to build web applications. “These applications share data from some of the largest sequencing studies in the world”

Coding by voice command requires two kinds of software: a speech-recognition engine and a platform for voice coding. Dragon from Nuance, a speech-recognition software developer in Burlington, Massachusetts, is an advanced engine and is widely used for programming by voice, with Windows and Mac versions available. There is also VoiceCode and Caster, the latter free and open source. This tools are not new, there’s a video of PyCon in 2013, demonstrating voice command. However, reportedly, the learning process of voice coding has a steep curve. You have to learn all the commands which turns out are not that natural. And if you have any throat problem it can become a challenge as well.

On the bright side, users report to think through very well before dictating any code, and we can be sure is a big benefit.

Voice technologies are soon to be part of the development process and not only result of it.

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