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Communication in the VUI-Era

February 8, 2019

Takeshi Kato
UI Developer, Architecture Team

I currently live with two smart speakers. When I return home, I say “Alexa, I'm home”, I'm then greeted with a “welcome back”, the lights are switched on and I'm informed of the day's news. When in the bedroom and saying “Ok, Google, good night”, I'm met with the response “good night” and the lights and television are subsequently switched off. Relaxing music is then played. Since the smart speakers came into to my home, my way of life is gradually changing (and I'm never lonely).

I guess that many people are interested in the question “while speakers are a trending topic, will they really catch on in Japan?” Indeed, according to Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting's 2018 survey on global mobile usage trends, the smart speaker household penetration rate in Japan is still only 3%, furthermore when looking at voicebot.ai data, the number of Alexa Skills in Japan has not reached one-tenth of the number in the US. So, in this Column, I'd like to anticipate how much VUI will influence our lives and what kind of related applications will increase.

Audience Breadth

In order to adequately master the use of both PCs and smartphones, we need to be able to read and write. Both skills are acquired throughout the course of our compulsory education. On the other hand, speech is a medium of communication with which we are endowed at birth. It's not something that we're taught by someone but rather a skill we acquire naturally by spending time with various people in various environments. So, in other words, devices that use audio as an interface can be used naturally by anyone, and their audiences will therefore be wider than those of websites and native apps.

In families with children, a speaker can be used as a child's playing partner. In the case of smartphones, I believe there are many parents who feel uneasy not knowing what their children do while using the devices, however, with smart speakers, even while a mother cooks, she can be certain of what her child is doing. In America, an Alexa Skill called Kids Court, which allows children to experience a pseudo trial, has been released. In the application, children can play the role of prosecutors, witnesses, and defendants and then Alexa, in the role of judge, makes the final ruling. As the app promotes the understanding of societal morals through fun and good humor, it's very popular with both parents and children.

Changing Education

Educational reforms are being implemented in Japan. After 2020, the curriculum of elementary, junior high and senior high school is expected to change drastically, with many classes centering on “subjective and interactive learning.” (Reference: MEXT document on educational reform in Japan (in Japanese)).

So, for children receiving interactive education, don't you think smart speakers with interactive interfaces will become very familiar devices? Children growing up accustomed to this type of communication may remove a hurdle peculiar to the Japanese - that is the notion that “speaking to a machine is embarrassing.”

Furthermore, Alexa Flash Briefing Skills can provide a quick overview of news and other content based on existing RSS feeds. By providing feeds amongst relatively small communities or groups, school classes for example, information can be efficiently conveyed to the home. So, with frequent, useful information sharing between school and home, won't gaps be reduced?

Changing Shopping

In Japan, cashless payment has progressed to the point where we can now find smartphone payment terminals installed in various shops and restaurants. Cash that had previously been stored in a physical wallet has now been digitized and people can shop through their smartphones.

Already through Amazon Alexa enabled devices, it's possible for users to shop using voice commands. This is especially convenient when shopping for everyday items, such as when running out of seasoning while cooking or when you're in a bath and the shampoo is gone. With a smart speaker these items can be purchased immediately.

I feel that this provides a seamless user experience that has advanced one step further than the cashless shift as buyers aren`t even aware of paying. Using Amazon Pay, as it's attached to the user's Amazon account, it's possible to omit address registration steps etc. thereby easily increasing sales channels. Going beyond shopping, the Japanese Red Cross have developed a Skill through which it's possible to donate through smart speakers. Just as there are subscription services for news/video sites, there are likewise for smart speakers, in that users can pay for audio content (music, audio books etc.).

In Closing

After discussing the future of VUI from several viewpoints, how do you feel? There are perhaps a fair few readers who think it's basically what we can already do with personal computers and smartphones. This is exactly the case; smart speakers won't be able to do anything new but rather improve the ease of use and usability of already existing functions – of course this is according to tasks and use scenarios. Furthermore, since smart speakers differ from the other devices in both use methods and proximity, further positive effects can be expected if used in combination with other devices.

We've recently released our Smart Speaker (VUI) Application Development service. With this service, entrust us with the development of smart speaker applications, for Google Home and Amazon Echo, from planning to post-release operation and maintenance.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the VUI market in Japan is still very young. So, by seizing on the points introduced above and publishing content at the earliest opportunity, companies can become pioneers of the technology.

We also offer "Audio AI channel creation program for Amazon Echo" service to utilize your content assets with smart speakers. I hope you take advantage of our services on this occasion.