The VoiceWorld Summit in Berlin

What do Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Michael Knight and every third internet user in the USA have in common?  They use voice user interfaces – interfaces which allow computers to have conversations with us and make our lives easier as virtual assistants.

The arrival of this technology, once considered to be the stuff of science fiction, has caused new markets and opportunities to emerge for consumers, companies and technology providers alike. The German Association for the Digital Economy recognised this and organised the first VoiceWorld Summit in Berlin on 21st February 2019. Over 250 experts from marketing, design, publishing and platform providers had the opportunity to learn from the experiences of voice evangelists, media experts from radio and podcasts and industry leaders and to get inspired by the technology’s development.

The future belongs to the voice … 

Leading technology providers have already breached the threshold and ushered in the age of the smart assistant. Google alone already has 1 billion devices in operation featuring a voice assistant. As many as 85% of all interactions for Google Services will be automated by 2020 and conversational experience will also assume an ever greater role in B2C marketing.

… as a medium 

We have learned to use our voices to articulate complex situations, request information and issue orders in order to meet our daily needs. Without consciously realising it, we already established our voice as a central medium in our daily media mix when we were young children by listening to bedtime stories. 

… as a user interface 

A life without smartphones and computers seems unthinkable nowadays. We have made them a key component of our private and business lives. However, if we want to make use of these practically limitless services, we still primarily type in text and use buttons. Siri and the car industry began to change this successfully as early as 2011. Together with Alexa, Google and Cortana numerous opportunities are offered to us in order to operate complex applications with our voices. 

Is this the end of the GUI? – No, because VUIs will offer added value in situations where the user does not have the use of his or her hands or eyes. They must be quicker, simpler and more natural to supplant the classic GUIs. The art will lie in making complex tasks manageable through the user via various interfaces.   

… as a data repository 

Dagmar Schuller, CEO and cofounder of Audeering described in her speech which information is embedded in our voices. Audeering is therefore able to abstract numerous data from the human voice: 

-    Person (sex, age, weight, nationality, dialect, …)

-    Personality (openness, extraversion, perfectionism, …)

-    Mental state (alcohol, fatigue, cognitive load, stress, …)

-    Emotion (annoyance, sadness, pleasure, nervousness, …)

-    Health (neurocognitive illnesses, breathing, pulse, …) 

A technology harbouring great potential and which, for example, enables call centres to better respond to their customers and measure the performance of their staff. 

… as a marketing channel 

Various marketing formats emerge through the high potential of the voice to emotionalise us and to capture our attention. If audio books languished on the fringe of the market for many years, podcast have now gained a firm foothold in the market in their third run. An average usage time of over 30 minutes as well as completion rates of over 90% confirm high user engagement and a useful channel for gaining long-term customer loyalty. 

Opportunities have also emerged in advertising through the new technology to create formats customised to the listener via the voice, with machine learning and complex data processing.  A simple example for this is children’s books in which the main character has the name of the listener. Watch children’s eyes as they hear their own names in the story. 

The challenge will be advertising the product adequately within a short period of time. Whilst the voice has a strong ability to emotionalise, it still has to struggle with our ever shorter attention spans. Not all formats can be made palatable to the user through the voice. The longing to go on holiday can be generated within seconds with a picture of a beautiful beach but audio struggles in comparison. 

… as branding 

Audio logos and jingles have contributed to corporate identity in radio and TV formats but these will be relegated to the shadows in the conversational interface market as product usability increases. Unlike in internet search engines, the search results in the market places will be almost entirely provided by a single provider. Good usability will have a much greater effect here than intelligent back-linking or other SEO strategies or large advertising budgets in radio formats.

Which role does voice place for Thunder and other CMS systems? 

It will not be possible to translate the classic website into voice. Try doing so with a screen reader. First and foremost, articles will need to be interpreted as stories in order to make them consumable as a media form.  

Whilst text articles are entered into the CMS in a structured fashion and individual paragraphs can be re-sorted or changed, we need to be more innovative with audio articles. Content management systems must enable the audio modality to capture semantically and to make the context searchable and capable of being order into categories. Changes need to be produced again at present and with considerable effort but in the future this will be one of the disciplines of audio-friendly CMS systems.  

With voice user interfaces we have the opportunity to make CMS systems accessible in terms of their usability to even more people. For this purpose, the user experience needs to be fundamentally reviewed and we as the Drupal Community must learn and internalise voice user interface design as a discipline. 

At present it appears as if we have slept through these trends. But it is not too late by any means. The opportunity is there to differentiate one’s self from competing systems as an early adopter. Even if the challenge is enormous and the Drupal community solutions need to be reinvented. In the end it is precisely these tricky tasks, for whose success clever and innovative thought is required, which are confronted in one of the largest open source communities.