Technology companies have spent years on computational linguistics to solve the basic problem of making machines more efficient in an era where they would have to deal with bigger data loads and more complex queries. One of the products of this research is voice driven artificial intelligence that can connect and drive everyday devices to understand human speech and react accordingly.
The most basic form of voice technology is a person directing a machine to do routine tasks such as play a track, read the mail, send automated response to mails and such things that Apple’s (AAPL - Free Report) Siri, Alphabet’s (GOOGL - Free Report) Google Now or Microsoft’s (MSFT - Free Report) Cortana took care of. Home automation is a more recent trend and wouldn’t it be cool if most of the smart devices/appliances used in the home can also take voice commands? And sync with each other to decide the desirable activity and then get it done?
While Microsoft has many years of research behind it, it is Amazon (AMZN - Free Report) that has really taken voice controlled platforms mainstream. The company launched its first Echo device a couple of years ago and sold more than seven million devices last year. While many of them were the cheaper Dot, it still puts Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant into that many new homes.
At this year’s CES, Amazon had a coup as companies ranging from Ford (F - Free Report) , Huawei and LG to a large number of startups unveiled phones, cars, home appliances and other gadgets with Alexa integration making Amazon’s voice assistant that much more useful.
And Amazon has doubled down to develop Alexa’s “skills,” which are discrete voice-based applications that allow the system to carry out specific tasks (like ordering pizza for example). At launch, Alexa had just 20 skills, which has reportedly jumped to 5,200 today with the company adding about 100 skills per day.
In fact, Bezos has said, “We've been working behind the scenes for the last four years, we have more than 1,000 people working on Alexa and the Echo ecosystem … It's just the tip of the iceberg.” Just last week, it launched a new website to help brands and developers create more skills for Alexa. It also has a home consultation service called “simplify your life” where Amazon reps teach you to automate your home using Echo and Alexa. But all this works simply because everything is connected with AWS, which transmits data between different devices.
Google Has Jumped In
Amazon is clearly the leader in voice controlled platforms today, but competition is in hot pursuit. Google Home was launched late last year and the search leader will do all it can to grow market share.
To prove the point Google too had some important announcements for the Google Assistant, which drives Google Home. But some of the most important deals were for integrations into Hyundai’s navigation system, Chrysler’s 300 model, NVIDIA’s (NVDA - Free Report) Shield TV as well as others such as Belkin smart switches, Switchmate smart lights, Coway Airmega air purifiers, etc. Google still has miles to go before it catches up with Amazon, but it’s made a strong start.
Google has the most to lose if it can’t make it big here because a lot of voice search will probably happen through these assistants going forward. But it also has an advantage, i.e., all the information it has curated over the years, your preferences and your habits that it can draw from to serve you. In short, it knows you better.
Apple Also in the Fray
Apple doesn’t have a separate Home device, but a useful app of the same name that can connect all the smart devices in your home and get them to communicate with each other. So it’s also dependent on the number of gadget makers supporting the app and this number has been swelling in the recent past.
While Apple’s partners aren’t making the news as much as the other two, there are a host of switch, light, camera, sensor, security system and other such device makers that have been announcing their support for Apple’s platform the last couple of CESs (Apple makes it a point to stay away from the show).
Samsung Taking Notice
Samsung paid a cool $8 billion to acquire auto infotainment, acoustics, display and other systems supplier Harman. That is a big sum to pay, although justified considering that Harman does offer a number of products that would be complementary with the displays and chips that are an important part of the increasingly electronic and soon-to-be self-driving cars. IHS iSuppli expects the market to grow from $42 billion in 2016 to $61 billion next year.
But there’s more: just last year, Harman announced a number of collaborations indicating its growing importance in the world of voice activated controls. In September, it agreed to incorporate Baidu speech recognition and synthesis technology in smart speakers so people can use voice commands to turn on audio experiences and access on-demand services.
Earlier, the two collaborated to create CarLife offering advanced Internet capabilities, entertainment features and location-based services on HARMAN's in-vehicle infotainment head units for the Chinese market. At the World of Watson conference last October, Harman collaborated with IBM to bring voice activated intelligent assistance based on IoT and cognitive computing to hotels, offices and hospitals across the world.
Along Comes SoundHound
Keyvan Mohajer of SoundHound says, "We are at the inflection point of our long-term vision that every product or service needs to have a smart voice-enabled interface, and consumers have increasingly high expectations for this requirement, beyond simple commands or skills," said Mohajer.
He may be right because of the $115 million raised in its 10-year long life, $75 million was contributed just last week from a group of companies including NVIDIA, Samsung’s Catalyst Fund, Nomura Holdings, Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance, Recruit Holdings’ RSI Fund, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, SharesPost 100 Fund and MKaNN. Global Catalyst Partners, Walden Venture Capital and Translink Capital Partners participated for a second time.
The reason the investment is significant at this juncture is SoundHound’s voice interface technology called Houndify that will now be empowered to reach more users. Houndify was incorporated into more than 500 products within the first 12 months of launch.
Its popularity in the past and why companies like Samsung and NVIDIA are interested in it right now is simple. The technology is not designed to take over the device or transfer data to SoundHound unlike platforms like Alexa and Google Home. So its proliferation will let device makers employ the technology and also retain user data. Houndify already has 20K developers working on the platform and this number could expand rapidly with the cash infusion. Houndify already has
Interaction with machines is set to become more interesting than ever before as they gradually understand our needs to get things done the way we want it even before we tell them to or perhaps right after. Since this is a nascent market, there may not be any clear winners. Right now it does look as if there’s enough growth opportunity for all the above players and more.
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