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Innovate blog: Could smart speakers change our lives?

by Martin Wilson

Could smart speakers change our lives?

Photo: Shutterstock/metamorworks

There’s a lot of discussion around voice technology and how it will transform the way we interact with the world – from making a cup of tea to driving your car. 

This Christmas, you may have received a smart speaker: an Amazon Echo, a Google Home or, if you were very good, an Apple HomePod. But beyond being a convenient way to play music in the kitchen while you’re cooking dinner, what are they, how might they affect the way you live your life, and why should you care?

How could voice assistance technology affect us?

It seems that voice assistants will be responsible for transforming the way we interact with objects. They’re currently just being used in the home – in kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms – but as they start to be built into a greater range of objects, like televisions, cars (BMW and Ford have both recently added Alexa to their vehicles) and even toilets (the Kohler Numi 2.0), they’ll never be more than a whisper away. 

This has the power to change the way brands engage with consumers. Voice assistance technology could be used to find new followers, help people in need, and even raise funds. 

Here’s a few good examples of how charities have already been using voice assistance technology:

  • British Red Cross are giving step-by-step advice on how to treat common ailments, so you’ll have the skills and knowledge you need to help someone in a first aid situation. 
  • British Heart Foundation helps you to donate unwanted furniture (or money) to the charity. 
  • Breast Cancer Care are providing guidance on breast checks to share information on the signs and symptoms of the disease.  

While these are all great examples of how charities are engaging with the technology, it’s still very early days – it only became possible to make charitable donations via Alexa at the end of 2018. There will be a fast rate of change as charities and companies fully understand the potential here.

An RNLI workshop taking place

Photo: RNLI/Martin Wilson

An activity during one of the RNLI's voice assistance technology workshops

What are the RNLI doing?

We recently ran a series of workshops with people from across the organisation. Our challenge was to identify how voice assistance technology could benefit our lifesaving activities – whether that's raising awareness of our safety messaging, making our service more efficient or providing valuable content that could build a stronger relationship with our supporters. 

After reviewing all the ideas, we have generated a shortlist and will begin developing the leading concept: an Amazon Alexa skill that can keep you updated with RNLI launches and activities. We hope to make it available in the near future – watch this space.

How does voice technology affect our lives?

According to Mindshare, a leading voice tech consultancy, 87% of regular voice users agree that 'when [voice technology] works properly, it really simplifies my life’ – which suggests smart speakers are much more than a shiny gimmick.  

Brain activity research conducted by Neuro-Insight discovered that removing physical barriers makes interacting with technology much more natural and takes up less mental energy. You can see this in the diagram below, which shows that people using an Amazon Alexa device displayed lower levels of brain activity when carrying out tasks compared to those typing into an iPad. 

Research shows using voice technology can use less mental energy

Photo: Neuro-Insight

Research shows using voice technology can use less mental energy 

How are people using smart speakers?

YouGov recently conducted a piece of research which found that the number one use of smart speakers was to play music. Perhaps because it’s much easier to use your voice than turning a radio dial or typing the name of your favourite playlist into your phone? 

YouGov smart speaker research

Photo: YouGov

YouGov analysed how smart speaker owners are using their devices

Who’s using voice assistance?

We’re quickly adopting voice assistance technology, with more than 50 billion voice searches recorded every month – and this is expected to grow to 200 billion by 2020. 

Microsoft Cortana, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple Siri are all fighting for top place, with Amazon winning the race for domination of the home – they claim there are 100 million Alexa-enabled devices worldwide. Meanwhile, Google are claiming that Google Assistant is available on a billion devices, a large majority of these being smartphones. 

To put this into context, predicted the number of US households with access to a smart speaker would reach 30% by the end of 2018. They also forecast that the UK adoption of voice assistants will rise to 12.6 million by the end of 2019, which represents 19% of the total population.

This is a much faster rate of adoption than we saw in the move from mobile to smart phones, so it'll be interesting to look back later this year and see how their prediction measures up!