Spreading the word and speech: voice-user interfaces conquer the world

The popularity of VUIs or Voice-user interfaces is unbroken, conquering new fields year after year.

As technology evolves and user needs change voice-based user interaction no longer belongs to the realm of science-fiction for telephones, computers or digital assistants – in fact, VUI is now present in smart homes or on different vehicles. In a pandemic situation such as the coronavirus epidemic, it is especially beneficial for people to be able to handle various devices contactless, especially in public areas.

If you can use an elevator, buy a ticket or a soft drink, book from a vending machine or get a queue number in the post office or the bank with voice commands, it would reduce the spread of the infection.

Comfort and usability are at least as important, and we can even say that it is far safer to manage devices through voice commands whenever you need to share your attention anyway. A mobile phone used in bad weather is a source of a lot of accidents, but if it can be controlled purely by voice commands (for example, for sending and reading chat or text message) everyone wins.

Future is already here and more and more people already feel their lives would be unthinkable without VUI – even if they often do not realize it is VUI they are using on a regular basis. So, let’s see what’s going on in voice management now and what to expect in the next 5 to 10 years.

 

(Smart) devices with voice user interface

We are living in a century where one can take it for granted that certain appliances respond to voice commands. A couple of decades ago none could have expected a television or oven to reply when spoken to or shout at.

While in 1980 it would have been a miracle if TVs had talked, in 2025, it would be weird if top tier appliances did not answer when talked to. It became public in 2018 that three companies, Sony, Hisense and LG, are also working on connecting their smartphones with Amazon Alexa.

Although we still have to wait for the really “intelligent” smart tv’s, some of these appliances with real VUI devices built-in can already be found in millions of households.

 

Digital assistants for your home

THE most common devices that can be considered primarily or exclusively controlled by a voice-user interface are called home digital assistants. Amazon Echo (aka Alexa), Apple’s Siri or the Google Nest are already well known and more tools are being prepared to corner the market, including Mycroft , the world’s first open source artificial intelligence virtual assistant.

Digital assistants similar to Echo and Google Assistant are perfect examples on proper application of VUI and its (almost complete) exclusivity: these are essentially small devices with minimalistic design, mostly resembling a “potted microphone.”.

Google Nest uses a whole range of VUI devices

At Ergomania, we are aware of how to develop a VUI using market-leading technology to make graphical interface unnecessary. The secret is to create a system according to the needs of the user.

Not all of them has graphic display, remote control is not included, so users control the application primarily via either a central application or with voice commands/dialogue -like system.

An explicit advantage Google Nest and Home have is that basically no extra gadgets or apps are required to manage the digital assistant, although available if needed for remote access away from home in case we want to control the system or check the security camera.

 

Grey clouds gather over Amazon Echo

In addition, privacy concerns have also emerged over time as these devices are constantly monitoring their environment, actively listening for the activating voice command.

Respectively, the transmission and analysis of spoken words, sentences, dialogues also raises a wealth of questions regarding data protection and privacy rights, mainly in connection with Amazon Alexa (privacy right issues are discussed here, data protection issues are listed here).

When designing a VUI, it is therefore worth considering data protection from the outset. At Ergomania, for example, we are committed to protect the private sector and personal information, and we do our best to ensure that the systems we develop also protect the interests of users.

 

We can already control our house with Google or Homey

Google Nest was called Google Home at the start – this is just the name of the app, while Nest denotes the entire system.

By today, it has grown into a real smart home center manageable through partly a VUI-controlled, partly a graphical interface: from adjusting thermostat and lighting to handling the alarm to using “smart locks”.

Homey, which is primarily built on a voice-based interface, was specifically created by the Dutch company Athom to manage an apartment laden with smart devices. The central unit can be activated with the “Hey, Homey” voice command, but it can do more than manage the smart device: it has dialogue-based intelligence, which clarifies each instruction with questions if necessary.

For example, upon receiving the instruction to “start movie titled XYZ at 8 in the evening”, Homey asks if the user wanted to watch it subtitled. In America, this rarely arises as an issue, but it is quite common in Europe for many people to learn a second or third language by watching movies in their original language, but have the caption in their native language. Two other Google Home-controlled developments that have fulfilled the desires of so many women and men for decades: one is the Roborock robot vacuum cleaner developed by Xiaomi and the other is the Rain bird smart irrigation system.

Both can be fully integrated into the smart home system, but could even be used separately, making sure that we don’t have to do the least liked household chores by hand.

 

Voice controlled televisions

By the way, movies. We have already mentioned at the beginning of our article that market-leading companies are working to make smart TVs “intelligent”. However, one-sided, purely voice user control is already available in some cases.

For example, the Xfinity Voice Remote marketed by Comcast allows you to control their devices with voice commands just by pressing a button. Due to privacy concerns about home assistants, this is a particularly positive solution, as the device does not need to constantly monitor its environment to hear the activation voice command.

Xfinity remotes

Comcast devices can understand simple voice commands such as “show settings,” “switch to Discovery,” “search a children’s show,” or “show what movies will be on at 7 in the evening.”.

Meanwhile, the device will only provide visual feedback and it will certainly be a few more years before the first TV with a real VUI is launched.

 

VUI-controlled portable devices

Smaller, cheaper, self-wearing smart devices are much more common, which can also be controlled in whole or in part with a voice-based interface. Perhaps the best known of these are smartwatches, which today are mainly developed by the largest mobile manufacturers because they have not really lived up to the hype surrounding them. Their sales were down even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and suffered even more in the early months of 2020, whereas the demand for hearables such as headsets increased exponentially.

This is not due to voice-based management, as users are particularly fond of VUI-controlled devices. Simply, smartwatches have not lived up to their promise because they are expensive, especially when their short uptime and limited functionality is taken into consideration. In addition, even their primary target audience neglected wearing them at home or when they are not doing some kind of sports activity. However, there is an area where VUI has recently begun to make headway and where it is of the utmost importance for users to be able to handle their device with voice commands: the automotive industry.

 

Voice-based interfaces in transport

Using cellular phones while driving, more specifically writing and reading text messages, browsing social media sites and using a smartphone in general, is extremely dangerous. Although the possibility of voice control has been available since the proliferation of radiotelephones in the early 2000s, it is used by relatively few of the drivers who end up causing traffic accidents. The main problem is not voice telephony, on the contrary: the user (driver in this case) pays attention to the screen of the device instead of the traffic. This is the reason behind the automotive companies’ constant developing possibilities for voice-based management: the better-connected smartphones can be used with purely voice-based control, the fewer accidents careless drivers would cause.

 

2000s: Ford, Honda and the first VUIs

Even before GPS moved to smartphones or had GPS devices with large enough touchscreens at all, Honda and IBM had already partnered and in 2005 created the first modern VUI navigation system. In 2007 Ford and Microsoft created SYNC together, allowing for the first in-vehicle voice-controlled mobile management. This was later supplemented with the possibility of playing music or retrieving traffic information.

3rd generation Ford SYNC system

Why hasn’t there been a VUI in cars so far?

The last 15 years have made a lot of changes owing to smartphones and the advanced mobile internet capabilities. Among other things, they have completely transformed content consumption habits, shopping trends and processes, human communication, and the world in general.

When talking about (literally) revolutionary changes that mobile telephony has brought, just take one fact into consideration: in Africa, for example, almost twice as many people have smartphones than computers. All this has also induced 2 fundamental changes in the automotive industry: on the one hand, on-board computers can take advantage of all mobile developments, and on the other, people are increasingly demanding these services.

IBM Simon, the first real smartphone – released way ahead of its time

The role of the latter is often forgotten, although in the last approx. 150 years prove that if a technology precedes its own age it often ends in failure. Anyone else remembers the first smartphone, IBM Simon from 1993?

Although the application of VUI in cars has been available for a long time, the market has only recently begun to understand its importance and usefulness to actually have a consumer base emerge that wants to communicate with their car, not only drive it.

 

Leading car brands and VUI present

Naturally, designing a VUI that can be used in a car poses a number of unique challenges for developers. Significant noise loads are immediately a given problem: the engine, the chassis, the traffic, the weather and the passengers make enough noise to impact comprehension separately and when added together they become a huge problem.

This can be bridged by a dialogue-based approach when the system asks to clarify if something is not understood but a system that asks too many questions can quickly cause a loss of prestige. In addition, the slow (much slower than mobile) life cycle of cars slows down development. Hardly anyone would replace their car after two years just because a better VUI system has come out.

In addition, activating the VUI also raises design issues, just like with Echo, Homey, or Google Assistant, because if it needs to be activated with a button, that button must be placed somewhere.

 

The name Mercedes is synonymous with innovation yet again

Based on the latest conferences and announcements we can safely say that leading players in the various industries have found each other very well: the most recent “Voice of the car” summit was led by Mercedes, with Google, Soundhound, Intel, Ford also taking part among several other companies.

MBUX in the new A-class Mercedes

Mercedes is already at the forefront of its own VUI development, and one of the latest results is MBUX voice control. The MBUX stands for Mercedes-Benz User Experience and was unveiled at CES in 2018, but is still only available in the company’s Class A line (will soon be available in Class S models, too).

Based on the demo video, MBUX is a next-generation digital assistant for driving that will fundamentally determine the developments for the next 15 years. It is practically an on-board system based on natural comprehension that can be operated via a VUI, which has also been given a graphical lookout, so that many functions of the car can be controlled both with sound and by hand.

What is certain is that the spread of the VUI has only just begun, and in 20 years it will be just as strange to see a fully “analog” car that cannot communicate as it is now when someone is using a dial phone. And if self-driving cars get a green light and spread, we could easily get anywhere with them in 2050 with voice commands alone.

 

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