47.3 million U.S. adults have access to a smart speaker, report says

Nearly one in five U.S. adults today have access to a smart speaker, according to new research out this week from Voicebot.ai. That means adoption of these voice-powered devices has grown from around 1 percent reach among U.S. adults to nearly 20 percent in just two years – or 47.3 million U.S. adults.

To clarify, “access to a smart speaker” means the adults have one in their home, but they may not be a primary user. So, a spouse, a roommate, or a live-in partner would also qualify as a smart speaker user, according to this study.

That’s a difference worth pointing out, especially if making a comparison to other technology devices, like smartphones or wearables, which tend to have only one owner. It may be more accurate, then, to compare smart speaker adoption to other technologies.

For instance, it took 13 years for televisions to reach the 50 million mark, versus 2 for smart speakers. It took 4 years for internet access to reach 50 million, and 2 years for Facebook. Of course, none of these are an apples-to-apples comparison, especially considering the costs (or lack thereof) involved, and the increasingly rapid pace of technology adoption. Still, it’s fun to see where smart speakers slot in.

The report’s findings are based on a survey of 1,057 U.S. online adults in January 2018, but device ownership was adjusted downward to compensate for the fact that online adults are 88.5 percent of the U.S. population.

In addition to ownership, the survey also revealed the characteristics of smart speaker owners.

For instance, market reach is not currently uniform across genders – 57.8 percent of owners identify as male, while 42.2 percent are female. The majority (nearly two-thirds) only own one device. That’s something of an indication that users aren’t seeing a need to spread devices around the home (or perhaps the young generation’s migration to cities and their small apartments is playing a role here, too.)

For smart speaker manufacturers, like Amazon and Google, and more recently Apple, that also means it’s a bit of zero sum game. The device makers are battling to be the home’s smart speaker, because people aren’t often buying a second.

Beyond the 67.5 percent single-device owners, 19.3 percent own two smart speakers, and smaller percentages own three or four. This averages out to 1.8 devices per consumer. But given the current adoption, there are still plenty of potential new customers device makers can sell to for the time being.

Consumers tend to use the smart speakers in either the living room (45.9% do) or kitchen (41.4%), followed by the bedroom (36.8%) and home office (10.9%).

For voice app developers, that means a focus on music and entertainment will sell better in the near-term, but it also paints a picture of future opportunity for those who build workplace apps – an area that hasn’t yet seen widespread adoption, but could be next – especially if Amazon has its way.

The report also reconfirms Amazon’s lead in the market, with 71.9 percent of the device install base compared with Google’s 18.4 percent, and the 9.7 percent of “other” devices (including Alexa- and Google Assistant-powered devices from other companies besides Amazon and Google, plus Cortana devices.)

However, keep in mind these are U.S. numbers. Similar to the iPhone/Android battle, Google has taken a lead in other countries around the world, including Canada, France, and Australia in 2017, and Amazon’s lead in the U.K. and Germany narrowed.

The Amazon Echo and Echo Dot command the market, with nearly two-thirds share, largely because they’ve been out longer. But newer sales indicate a preference for the smaller form factor and low-priced smart devices, like Echo Dot and Google Home Mini, the latter which outsold Google Home in three months’ time.

As to who chooses Amazon versus Google, homes with above-average income are 7.5 percent more likely to opt for an Echo, while those with income below the national average tend to own a Google smart speaker.

Speakers are also attractive to iPhone users, 22 percent who are more likely to own a speaker, and 30 percent less likely to buy one from Google.

Further details about use cases and voice commerce are in the full report, here.

Designed for enterprise, PullString Converse lets anyone create Alexa apps

PullString, the voice technology company that began its life as ToyTalk, and counts among its customers brands like Mattel, Activision, and Samsung, is today publicly launching software that allows non-technical creative professionals the ability to design, prototype and publish voice apps for Amazon Alexa.

Originally focused on helping companies build voice-enabled toys like Hello Barbie and Hello Barbie Dreamhouse, or allowing kids to chat with favorite characters like Thomas the Tank Engine, ToyTalk rebranded to PullString back in 2016 to reflect its expanded mission.

The company had found there was demand – perhaps more demand, in fact (and definitely less consumer backlash) – for the software toolkit it had built along the way to craft the narratives between children and their toys. This software became a platform that made it easy for anyone to build chatbots, and then, with the launch of the web-based PullString Converse in November 2017, the company shifted further away from chatbots, and more fully into voice computing.

Today, PullString Converse 1.0 is becoming broadly available to any interested customers.

“[Converse] will let a lot a companies – particularly the digital professionals who are not computer programmers – and let them build Alexa skills themselves and for the companies they work for,” says PullString CEO Oren Jacob, whose previous experience at Pixar comes into play here when it comes to understanding the design process.

Of course, “let anyone build a voice app” is a description that a number of other companies are today using, when talking about their own web-based, voice app design software. But PullString has a longer history in the business, and has learned about how best to structure conversations to give them a more natural feel thanks to the large-scale projects it’s handled, including those for Barbie, or Activision’s Alexa-enabled speaker “Ghost,” designed for Destiny 2, for instance.

“The best practices for how we build computer conversations are well-expressed in the system and the kinds of conversational blocks that you use, so it really helps you build the highest-quality conversation in the market, flat out, ” Jacob says.

In Converse, users build out their conversations visually on the screen by laying out conversation blocks on a canvas and customizing what they say (see above). To speed things up, Converse also includes a number of built-in conversation blocks, like those for greetings, navigation, Q&A, and more.

The software, Jacob notes, can also take advantage of the history of the person interacting with it. That is, the skill can respond differently to first-time users versus returning users. It can also remember support remembering users’ preferences and the responses shared in prior sessions to make skills feel more personalized. And when a user returns to the skill – even if it’s weeks or months later – they can pick right where they left off.

This aspect of the system is powered by PullString’s Conversation Cloud, which was originally built to power complex voice experiences, like Hello Barbie, and is capable of preserving the conversation states over time.

In addition, PullString Converse supports dynamic content. Instead of only stilted conversations, the software lets companies integrate their customers relations management, employee resource planning, content management system’s data, or anything other third-party API into their voice apps. That means customer support teams could build voice apps that take over some of the more lightweight customer service duties from call centers, for example, or digital marketers could capture leads through voice apps, PullString suggests. At launch, over 1,000 integrations are available.

Converse also supports custom audio, which allows the voice apps to use other voices, not just Alexa, as well as integrate sound effects and music.

When the skill has been built, PullString allows designers and others to preview the project instantly in the browser; and when it’s ready to go, PullString can publish it to Amazon’s Skill store.

This more advanced feature set differentiates PullString from some other voice app design software already on the market, and positions it as enterprise software. Pricing, as is common in enterprise scenarios, is handled on a case-by-case basis, depending on the customer’s needs.

PullString Converse today supports Amazon Alexa, but Google Assistant is planned for the future.

Amazon’s Alexa Skills Developer Console gets its biggest redesign since launch

Amazon today is rolling out the biggest makeover for its Alexa Skills Kit Developer Console – the console where voice app developers create their skills – since its debut back in 2015. The new console has been redesigned with a focus on improving developer workflows, says Amazon. It now offers separate sections for “build,” “test,” “launch,” and “measure” – meaning developers can create skills in a visual interface, test their performance, push them live, then see how consumers respond in order to make adjustments.

The redesign comes at a time when a number of third-party companies have stepped in to address issues that Amazon’s own toolset has been lacking. For example, Sayspring created a visual interface for designers to prototype their voice apps ahead of coding, and YC-backed Storyline allows for Alexa skill development without coding.

While Amazon’s own developer console doesn’t address those exact same use cases, there is a bigger emphasis on visualizing the flow of the conversation with Alexa than in the previous version.

Now, developers will have a visual interface for creating skill components, like intents, slots, sample utterances, and the dialog model.

Afterwards, they can test their skill in the console using either voice or text – including multi-turn dialog – while seeing the conversation play out in the left-hand sidebar.

The “Launch” page will help developers address common validation errors, and offers support for publishing private skills for Alexa for Business. (Before, these business skills could only be published using the Alexa Skills Kit Command Line Interface.)

And in “Measure,” developers can track metrics around sessions, utterances, unique customers, and now, cohort analysis, too. This will help them better understand their customer retention and engagement over time.

Above: The old and new experience, side-by-side

“We’re constantly introducing new features for developers to enhance skill building and management, and one piece of feedback we received from developers was for a simplification of the workflow,” explains Amazon’s Paul Cutsinger, who led the redesign project. “We took developer feedback and used it to improve the site structure and information architecture. The new developer console makes navigation easier with an updated and integrated user interface,” he says. “Developers can create and manage their skill in one integrated environment with a built-in checklist and validation support at each step.”

Overall, the new skill builder does look like a more modern piece of software, is now branded with Alexa’s logo and blue color scheme, and appears less intimidating to newcomers to Alexa skill building as a result of the redesign.

However, the software is still in beta and Amazon warns that while it can handle most skills, there are some features that are unsupported for the time being.

Part of the battle for smart speaker market share is keeping the developer community happy. On that front, Amazon has a mixed track record. While it has a bigger end user base for smart speaker voice apps thanks to Echo’s popularity, the apps have so far been somewhat difficult to monetize, despite Amazon’s more recent support for in-app purchases and subscriptions.

Many developers are doing voice apps as more of a hobby, in the hopes that the ecosystem will develop over time. Other apps built by larger companies are seen more as the cost of doing business – if you’re Uber, for example, or a smart home device maker or a news publisher, you have to establish your presence on the platform.

The new Alexa Skills Kit developer console (beta) is live here.

TCL unveils its voice-enabled, Roku-connected Smart Soundbar

Last week, streaming media company Roku announced its plans to enter the voice controlled device market through a new program that would allow other manufacturers to integrate with Roku’s voice platform in their own smart speakers, soundbars, surround sound systems, and more. At the time, Roku TV maker TCL was the first to commit to using Roku Connect, as the integration technology is called. Today at CES, TCL unveiled which new Roku devices it has in store: the Alto family of audio products, starting with the TCL Roku Smart Soundbar.

This soundbar is the first device to take advantage of Roku Connect’s technology. The device can be used with any TV to offer a premium sound experience, as soundbars do, but consumers are meant to buy it for the Roku Connect features.

When set up with one of the existing Roku TVs (like TCL’s own, of course), the soundbar adds hands-free voice and audio capabilities to the TV.

Below, what the soundbar may look like, not necessarily what it will:

For example, you could tell your TV to tune to a particular Roku channel, play or pause the programming, turn on or off, set a sleep timer, play music, and much more.

The soundbar will also be able to work with any other Roku Connect-enabled devices in the home, including smart speakers.

The product will arrive sometime in late 2018, TCL says.

“Our TCL Roku TVs are amazingly popular among consumers, making the TCL brand the third most popular smart TV in the US in 2017,” said Chris Larson, Senior Vice President, TCL.

(Roku had noted last week that when TCL when Roku started working with TCL, the TV manufacturer was number 19 in market share in the U.S. As of year-end 2017, they’re number 3.)

“We’re doubling down on our partnership with Roku to offer our customers an easy way to add premium sound and enhanced functionality to a TCL Roku TV,” Larson added. “TCL is dedicated to integrating leading technologies into our entertainment product portfolio and by partnering with Roku we’re bringing a better home theater experience to our consumers.”

In addition to the soundbar’s launch, TCL said it will also update its Roku TVs in 2018 to include Roku’s new voice assistant, the Roku Entertainment Assistant. This is the more powerful version of Roku’s existing voice platform that’s designed to work with the new range of Roku Connect products from OEMs.

It’s also launching two new Roku TVs this spring, the TCL Roku 6-Series 4K HDR TV available in 55″ and 65″ models, and the TCL Roku 5-Series 4K HDR TV available in 43″ to 65” models.

TCL Roku TV 6-Series:

The 6-Series comes with the Roku TV Voice Remote as well, and supports TCL’s Performance Package Pro with includes Contrast Control Zone Technology, which identifies bright and dark areas in each frame of content and controls each zone within the frame to create the contrast between light and dark areas. It also includes a new iPQ Engine and a versatile HDR Pro Gamma control.

TCL Roku TV 5-Series:

The  5-Series includes the HDR Performance Package, which uses information embedded in Dolby Vision content for the HDR solution, as well as the iPQ Engine for color replication and HDR Pro Gamma to improve HDR performance.

Pricing and availability information is not yet available for the new devices – it will be revealed closer to the commercial launch, says HDR.

iHome debuts a Google Assistant-powered clock radio, the iGV1

Amazon’s Echo Spot, introduced late last year, smartly combined the power of Alexa with a more traditional clock radio type form factor and interface, complete with a screen for video viewing and calls. Now, the Google Assistant-powered competitors are starting to emerge. At CES this week, iHome is debuting its own take on the “smart” clock radio, with the iGV1 device.

Unlike Echo Spot, the iGV1 doesn’t have a video screen – but that could be to its advantage, as it could appeal to those who aren’t comfortable bringing a video screened-device into their bedroom. At $139.99, however, it’s a little bit more than the $129.99 Spot, but offers a similar feature set including smart home controls, music streaming, voice control/assistance, and more.

The device itself is a small, gray fabric-covered speaker with a phantom dimmable display that can be turned off if you prefer to sleep in pitch black. The display only shows the current time and alarm. On the top, is a white shell with volume controls and an integrated snooze button. The option to smack the button may make more sense for those who don’t want to ask Google Assistant to shut off the alarm by voice as soon as they wake up.

Through Google Assistant, the device offers the standard feature set of voice assistance, the ability to play music from streaming services like Google Play, Pandora, Spotify and YouTube Music, smart home control – including compatibility with iHome’s own SmartPlug devices – and support for Google Cast technology.

Specifically, if music is playing on another Google Cast device, you can Cast that music to the iGV1 using your phone. You can also Cast music from your phone or PC over Wi-Fi to the iGV1, or play music wirelessly on it via Bluetooth. The music plays on the device via its Reson8 speaker chamber, which iHome claims offers “clarity, depth and power.”

Another nice thing about connected clock radios compared with traditional devices is that you don’t have to set the clock. Instead, the iGV1 will sync with NTP (Network Time Protocol) for clock accuracy, once connected to your home’s Wi-Fi.

The iGV1 also ships with a 1 Amp USB port to charge your phone or other mobile device at night, but not an extra charging cable for that.

iHome says the iGV1 will be available “soon” at retailers, but didn’t offer a launch time frame.

Roku joins the voice computing market with smart soundbars, speakers and more built by partners

Roku, which sells the most popular brand of streaming media players in the U.S., is now aiming to carve out a niche for itself as the voice control platform for home entertainment. Today, Roku is unveiling a licensing program for manufacturing partners that include reference designs for smart speakers, smart soundbars, surround sound and multi-home audio systems that use new Roku Connect software to communicate wirelessly and be controlled by voice.

Unlike competitors in the voice-controlled smart device market, like Amazon and Google, Roku will only build the voice assistant software itself. It will leave the hardware design and integrations up to its OEM partners – including its existing Roku TV partners – to implement. The first OEM to commit to this is TCL, which will unveil its debut Roku Connect-powered device at CES on January 8th.

Roku’s plan for voice computing acknowledges that consumers may already have already adopted an Echo or Google Home device. It’s not looking to replace other smart speakers, necessarily, but rather wants to be the voice system you could use alongside those devices.

The idea is that Roku’s voice assistant will be specifically optimized for home entertainment – not the smart home, not video calls, and not a voice app ecosystem, like Amazon’s Skill Store or Google Home’s Actions. (At least not at first.) While Roku’s voice assistant may offer some basic voice Q&A features, like news and weather, its main function will be to offer voice control for your Roku TV, Roku player, and other Roku audio devices built by the company’s partners.

For example, you’ll be able to say things like “Hey Roku, play jazz in the living room,” or “Hey Roku, launch the Roku Channel,” or “Hey Roku, turn off the TV in 30 minutes.” (The command, “Hey Roku,” will precede any of the voice interactions, similar to Google’s “Hey Google.”)

The Roku Entertainment Assistant, as this voice assistant is called, will also let you voice control media playback, like playing or pausing the program you’re watching on your Roku device.

The vision, explains the company, is a whole home licensing program featuring Roku devices and others built to work with the Roku Connect platform. The hope is that it will lure in customers who already operate their Roku media players or TVs with Roku’s voice control, and encourage them to expand their home media system with more Roku-connected devices.

Roku believes its connected ecosystem could help to eliminate the complexities that exist today with setting up systems like sound bars, surround sound, and multi-room audio speakers.

“It’s hard for consumers to set up. It’s based on existing standards that were designed before the connected community era, that limits features, fidelity and ease-of-use,” explains Mark Ely, VP of Product Management at Roku, of traditional home entertainment hardware. “You can’t use modern conveniences – like your voice – to make it all automatically work,” he continues. “What we believe consumers really want is a home entertainment network.”

For Roku, the program also represents a way to bring in more customers and increase its revenue.

“Our licensing platform is the fastest growing way we acquire active accounts at Roku,” adds Ely, of the existing Roku TV licensing program.

For example, when Roku started working with TCL, the TV manufacturer was number 19 in market share in the U.S. Today, they’re number 4. And every smart TV they sell is a Roku TV,  Ely notes. It’s no surprise, then, that TCL is the first to jump on the chance to build more Roku devices.

Across both Roku players and Roku TVs, the company has grown its user base 47 percent since last year to 16.7 million active accounts as of Q3 2017. Those users streamed 3.8 billion hours during the quarter, up 58 percent year-over-year. And one in every five smart TV in the U.S. was a Roku TV during the first 9 months of 2017. (It’s also now adding its ninth brand, Magnavox, this spring, thanks to Funai Electric’s decision to extend its Roku TV licensing agreement beyond its existing deal with Philips.)

Roku says it will license the Roku Connect software to OEM brands for free, and it doesn’t plan on collect licensing revenues from these new smart speakers or smart soundbars. Instead, the company aims to monetize the active user accounts these devices bring in, as consumers engage with the content and advertising on Roku’s platform. This includes in the newer, ad-supported Roku Channel, where Roku has aggregated free content from channel partners alongside movies and shows its licensed itself.

Roku will launch the voice assistant, along with partners’ first hardware devices like smart speakers and soundbars, in fall of 2018. However, there will be announcements about those devices ahead of their arrival, as the OEM partners join the program.

Current Roku customers won’t need to buy new hardware to take advantage of the voice assistant, we’re told. It will also be offered to existing Roku TVs and Roku players (those with the voice remote) as a software update, and will be integrated into Roku’s mobile app, too. These systems today have a rudimentary voice search feature available, but the new Entertainment Assistant will be more powerful. It will also grow over time to be even more capable, much like Google and Amazon’s voice assistants do today.

If another home entertainment company besides Roku was attempting to enter the voice computing market, it would likely be an uphill battle.

But Roku’s devices have grown in popularity because they’re not affiliated with content platform, the way that Apple TV, Android TV, Chromecast, and Fire TV are. That means they can remain neutral, while companies like Google and Amazon get into fights that sees Google pulling YouTube from Fire TV, or have to take years to hash out deals for something as simple as being able watch Amazon Prime Video on Apple TV.

Roku, meanwhile, benefits from this position – beating sales projections, growing ad revenue, and increasing its active user numbers, as it did in its first earnings.

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