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Virtual Voice Assistants Are Set to Disrupt the TV Value Chain
Netgem launches SoundBox with Alexa for telco operators as the battle to control the end user's smart home takes off. It's not just about the TV.

Virtual assistants that use cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI) to provide a voice-based interface are proving disruptive to the existing TV value chain. Consumer electronics manufacturers and software-as-a-service (SaaS) technology providers are jockeying to position themselves on the right side of history.

Sony, for example, plans to introduce Google Assistant to its latest line of smart TVs. According to Joel Espelien, senior advisor for analysts at The Diffusion Group (TDG), Sony knows only too well that in the long term this may be “a deal with the devil.” Nevertheless, Sony’s business model, along with its competitive vulnerability in the TV market, leaves it little choice.

Content recommendation engines need to work hand-in-hand with pay TV operators or risk being usurped by larger data aggregators, content providers, and AI controllers like Amazon. ContentWise, for example, has hooked its recommendation service to Alexa for DirecTV where Alexa provides the consumer UI but ContentWise still powers search and discovery to DirecTV’s library.

Amazon just added Alexa to its Fire TV stick in the U.K., and while Amazon content is displayed prominently following a search, it has promised that iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My5, and other third-party content providers can provide direct recommendations to users.

Sky in the U.K. has voice search inked in for its Sky Q box later this year. Meanwhile, Ericsson, TiVo, Rwuido and Netgem are among technology providers experimenting with adding virtual assistants.

Espelien suggests TV makers coalesce around Google as the de facto default search engine, the benefit being that it creates a level playing field for search. However, such a move is unlikely given it would “essentially hand Google the keys to the $70 billion U.S. TV advertising market.”

Since bespoke voice UIs are destined to fail against the might of the big four virtual assistants—Alexa, Cortana (Windows), Siri (iOS), and Google—a more likely option is for existing vendors to team with one of them.

That's what Netgem has done in devising SoundBox, a new product aimed to give telcos a heads-up in the smart home.

“2017 is the year of the voice assistant,” declares managing director Sylvain Thevenot. “After the remote control, the interactive menu, and the smartphone we think it’s time to move to the next level with voice.”

Netgem has partnered with Amazon to create an environment where telco pay TV services connect to Alexa with three layers of interaction. Thevenot describes the first layer as “replacing what you do with a remote by voice commands.” In fairness, he says, “This is not much smarter than having a remote on your mobile phone.”

The second layer adds more value by performing improved search and recommendation in the cloud via the Netgem Home Platform.

In the third layer, the combination of voice control and AI goes to places not possible before.

An example: When a user sees an actor in a film but can’t quite place their name, the voice UI is able to call on face recognition linked to the cloud to deliver the answer. “You could do it today with a manual internet search, but it takes time,” Thevenot says. “Using a virtual assistant is much easier and one of a range of possibilities the industry has barely begun to explore for voice UI.”

Netgem’s proposition is for another a piece of black box hardware in the living room. Whether consumers will take to that we shall see, but the concept is logical and aims to give Netgem’s telco customers first-mover status. The battle to own the end-user in the connected home is heating up but what stakeholders will agree is that consumers won’t suffer ten different AIs listening and talking to them. 

The product is designed to help operators deliver all a customer’s music and video, with the Amazon Alexa voice assistant accessible either by speaking to a SoundBox smartphone app or to an Amazon Echo or Dot. Consider this a stalking horse for future, wider telco control of smart home services such as lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), and home security. It could even expand to remote health and home ageing.

“Mobile network operators aren’t naturally associated with delivering smart home solutions,” Thevenot says. “SoundBox will enable them to change that perception for the first time by giving them an opportunity to redefine the way they approach family bundles.”

Netgem backs up its plan with a quote from analyst Nigel Walley of Decipher Media. “The combination of video and music has huge potential for connected entertainment and telecom service providers,” he says.  “The SoundBox is a big step to unifying the entertainment experience in the smart home.”

The natural advantage pay TV operators have over the big four virtual assistant controllers is simple: If something goes wrong with your Echo Dot or Google Home—who you gonna call? Lacking call centers and the decades long legacy of physically entering customer homes to install product means Amazon will want to partner with telcos and build out the connected home together.

The convenience of controlling all of a home's connected devices with a single assistant is compelling. It simplifies TV access and search, since the user doesn't have to click a Search button or navigate an EPG.

But, on closer inspection, if the only way to control all devices is voice it is unlikely to be successful on the long-term, argues Ruwido CEO Ferdinand Maier. “The user must not be forced to talk, if they do not want to, or if they just cannot talk in a certain situation, but be provided with a combination of interaction modalities.

“Some critical aspects for virtual assistants are their ability to take decisions and act by themselves. They are able to run the IoT environment independently of the user: The key will be to allow the user to still feel in control and to understand why the virtual assistant is doing what it’s doing. Research has shown that people sometimes simply do not trust the system in its choice of activities—and once the trust is gone, acceptance of the system is limited.”

Maier favors the concept of continuous recognition. Based on the device used (e.g. the remote control) the system will be able to identify the user without requiring speaking or signing in. It will be done the moment the user holds the remote or starts interacting with the system.

Ruwido focuses on the overall context (what has been said previously, what is on screen when the user is talking, where the user is situated, the time of day) to make voice interaction more than a one-way communication, and to establish a dialogue that supports the user experience.

“From a technical viewpoint, AI platforms need to evolve to be able to support as much input data as possible,” Maier says. “Beyond today’s standard information like text or voice, we need to incorporate electrical signals or more complex patterns like gestures, that can be handled within milliseconds and do not require computation in the cloud. So, the next tendency in terms of technology will be decentralization and computation on small devices that are connected via the Internet of Things.”

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