Voice interfaces beginning to find their way into business

Imagine attending a business meeting with an Amazon Echo (or any voice-driven device) sitting on the conference table. A question arises about the month’s sales numbers in the Southeast region. Instead of opening a laptop, opening a program like Excel and finding the numbers, you simply ask the device and get the answer instantly.

That kind of scenario is increasingly becoming a reality, although it is still far from common place in business just yet.

With the increasing popularity of devices like the Amazon Echo, people are beginning to get used to the idea of interacting with computers using their voices. Anytime a phenomenon like this enters the consumer realm, it is only a matter of time before we see it in business.

Chuck Ganapathi, CEO at Tact, an AI-driven sales tool that uses voice, type and touch, says with our devices changing, voice makes a lot of sense. “There is no mouse on your phone. You don’t want to use a keyboard on your phone. With a smart watch, there is no keyboard. With Alexa, there is no screen. You have to think of more natural ways to interact with the device.”

As Werner Vogels, Amazon’s chief technology officer, pointed out during his AWS re:Invent keynote at the end of last month, up until now we have been limited by the technology as to how we interact with computers. We type some keywords into Google using a keyboard because this is the only way the technology we had allowed us to enter information.

“Interfaces to digital systems of the future will no longer be machine driven. They will be human centric. We can build human natural interfaces to digital systems and with that a whole environment will become active,” he said.

Amazon will of course be happy to help in this regard, introducing Alexa for Business as a cloud service at re:Invent, but other cloud companies are also exposing voice services for developers, making it ever easier to build voice into an interface.

While Amazon took aim at business directly for the first time with this move, some companies had been experimenting with Echo integration much earlier. Sisense, a BI and analytics tool company, introduced Echo integration as early as July 2016.

But not everyone wants to cede voice to the big cloud vendors, no matter how attractive they might make it for developers. We saw this when Cisco introduced the Cisco Voice Assistant for Spark in November, using voice technology it acquired with the MindMeld purchase the previous May to provide voice commands for common meeting tasks.

Roxy, a startup that got $2.2 million in seed money in November, decided to build its own voice-driven software and hardware, taking aim, for starters, at the hospitality industry. They have broader ambition beyond that, but one early lesson they have learned is that not all companies want to give their data to Amazon, Google, Apple or Microsoft. They want to maintain control of their own customer interactions and a solution like Roxy gives them that.

In yet another example, Synqq introduced a notes app at the beginning of the year that uses voice and natural language processing to add notes and calendar entries to their app without having to type.

As we move to 2018, we should start seeing even more examples of this type of integration both with the help of big cloud companies, and companies trying to build something independent of those vendors. The keyboard won’t be rendered to the dustbin just yet, but in scenarios where it makes sense, voice could begin to replace the need to type and provide a more natural way of interacting with computers and software.

Featured Image: Mark Cacovic/Getty Images

Roxy grabs $2.2 million seed investment to build Alexa-like voice devices customized for business

Some of the biggest names in technology are all in on voice-controlled devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, but Roxy, a Seattle-based startup believes that businesses need a voice system where they control the data and the voice commands are designed for their specific requirements. They announced $2.2 M in seed funding today.

The company has built its own modular hardware and software combination and believes that by giving businesses a product geared to the needs of a particular industry, they can carve out a niche within the realm of technology’s biggest companies.

The company’s founders include Cam Urban, formerly of Microsoft Azure who has a couple of startups on his resume, Peng (“Michael”) Shao, who led the speech recognition team for Amazon Alexa and Le (“Grace”) Huang, who was a software engineer at Amazon.

Investors include Highway1, Alchemist, Betaworks, Genesis Capital, AJ Capital and several individual investors.

Roxy is not just creating customized software for their customers, they have also built their own modular hardware that can expand or contract to include things like USB ports, a screen or speakers. How that hardware is designed will depend on the use case. In hotels, it will get everything, while in supermarkets, the USB ports would be stripped out.

Roxy voice-controlled hardware device. Photo: Roxy

As for the software, they can customize it for each business type and even location, allowing the customer to control the types of interactions that their customers have with the device, and perhaps most importantly control the data instead of sharing it with the technology giants.

“Something that I didn’t expect is that a lot of these companies don’t want their data in Amazon or Google’s hands,” co-founder and CEO Cam Urban told TechCrunch. His company’s system leaves the data in the control of the customer, which is a big deal.

For starters, Roxy is concentrating on hotels and already has 10 paying pilots at west coast hotels. In the case of hotels, the voice commands are all geared towards the types of questions you would call the front desk to get answers such as asking for room service, check out times, fresh towels and the hours the pool is open.

Roxy device on hotel room nightstand. Photo: Roxy

The hardware is built to replace a bunch of the equipment you find in the typical hotel room from an alarm clock to speakers to USB ports — and even a telephone. The Roxy can take care of all of that. The problem becomes, how do you educate people who lack technical savvy to use a device like this instead of picking up a phone? Conversely, how do you get people used to interacting with a general purpose device like the Amazon Echo to learn this is designed to answer a limited number of questions.

Urban says they needed to learn how to educate the guests, who are often only there for a brief period of time, but they included the screen in part as a way to train users on a device they wouldn’t be familiar with. The goal is to get the device to answer within three questions.

For the less technical, it’s learning how to ask. For the more technical, it’s learning what to ask and for those who don’t trust a device like this in their hotel, they included a big on/off button to turn it off if that’s what the patron wants to do.

Since many hotels have ancient legacy systems, they have created light-weight versions of the software and help customers hook into their existing systems. Urban says that experience is in fact another differentiator between his company and the big vendors, who are geared to more general experiences and lack the specific understanding of each industry and their requirements.

Over time, the company has a roadmap to move beyond hotels into other areas like airports, supermarkets, museums and hospitals.

Featured Image: Karnet/Getty Images