Download the latest issue of Business Today Magazine just for Rs.49

Future Speak

From offering verbal assistance to understanding human emotions, the smart speaker is evolving.

By 2022, personal devices, and not friends or family, will know more about an individual's emotional state just by analysing the tone of voice, according to research firm Gartner. So when you are in low spirits, you can expect your smart speaker to play an upbeat number to cheer you up, order for a tub of your favourite ice-cream and make the lighting warm. Touched?

Smart speakers have hogged the limelight for their ability to carry out numerous tasks - online searches, controlling home appliances, reading news updates, turning on the shower, among other things. In a less-than-distant future, they are expected to go from being a fancy gadget to becoming a member of your house.

It could become that 'know it all' member of the family who can step up in times of a crisis. For instance, a smart speaker could determine the health emergency in your family, by sensing the distress in your voice followed by a few questions, and guide you to perform CPR or offer first aid while the ambulance is on the way.

Puneesh Kumar, Country Manager - India, Alexa Experience & Devices, says while this is, of course, a possibility, given the rate at which artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is progressing, and cloud computing, the accuracy is questionable. "The amount of processing we do cognitively or subconsciously in our brain may be hard for the machine to replicate. It is easy to imagine a world where we can get better at it (AI), but will we get at it better than what humans can is a little early to speculate."

The market is buzzing with smart speakers. Post 2014, when Amazon Echo was launched, the adoption of smart speakers has been astonishingly high. NPR and Edison Research suggest that over 39 million people in the US own a voice-activated smart speaker. The phenomenon took a while to arrive in India. After equipping Alexa, the brain that powers the Echo smart speakers, to understand the Indian accent, phrases, and languages for over a year, Amazon launched the Echo Plus (`14,999), Echo (`9,999) and Echo Dot (`4,499) with 10,000 'skills' late last year. 'Skills' stand for the voice commands Alexa understands and responds to.

Meanwhile, Google has launched Google Home (`9,999) and Google Home Mini (`4,499); it plans to introduce Hindi language support later in the year. Apple and Microsoft, too, have joined the bandwagon but are yet to launch their smart speakers in India.

Smart speakers are now being integrated with the display. So, now, they will be able to speak and show information. Apart from making browsing for recipes and traffic updates more comfortable, this is particularly useful in industries such as hospitality and travel. Picture this: At restaurants instead of the steward taking the order or explaining a dish, a smart speaker could do the job. It could suggest what wine to pair with your food and note your special requests to the chef, too.

Installation of smart speakers with displays at airport entry gates, form counters and security checks can make travellers' lives much easier. The issues related to understanding accents, languages and procedures, which foreign travelers often face, could also be solved.

Amazon has launched the Echo Show with a seven-inch screen and Echo Spot with a circular 2.5-inch screen; the latter has been launched in India for `12,999. Google is working with Lenovo, Sony, JBL and LG to launch Google Assistant-powered smarts speakers with a built-in touchscreen.

Smart speakers are here to stay and grow. Canalys predicts that this segment will witness 56.3 million shipments in 2018. Every new one that launches in the market will have higher AI capabilities. The future will see the integration of smart speakers with other gadgets and home appliances. For instance, Amazon's Alexa Mobile Accessory kit will bring Alexa to portable, on-the-go devices such as wearables - fitness bands and smartwatches. If your vitals seem off the mark, expect your smartwatch to detect an emergency and call for an ambulance if need be.