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Virtual Assistants Market on the Rise, Poised to Rule in 2017

In Spike Jonze’s 2013 film “Her”, the main character Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with a Siri-like virtual assistant. It is an intelligent computer operating system, a variance of AI envisioned by the high technology developers of today.

We are still far away from creating AI capable of thinking and learning for themselves, not to mention living in symbiosis with them. However, Intelligent Virtual Assistants can be perceived as a step towards the fulfillment of the idea. What are Intelligent Virtual Assistants? How can they assist us? What benefits can they bring to their users and what’s contributing to their increasing popularity? The industry’s top executives have been asking themselves these questions, and there were a lot of ongoing conversations on the subject in 2016.

Virtual Digital Assistants (VDAs)

Alexa, Google, Cortana, and Siri are the names you’ve probably already heard of. The current “fantastic four” when it comes to voice-activated digital assistance. These platforms or applications are able to assist their human users because they understand natural language in spoken or written form. VDAs are activated by voice and powered by artificial intelligence algorithms, and major tech companies are putting them into multiple products. What they want is to (potentially) add sources of revenues by tangling us further in their tech ecosystems.

The capabilities of virtual assistants used to be pretty much limited, as they lived “inside their own bubbles”. For example, Siri was mostly cut off from other apps, but it could gather info from Rotten Tomatoes, Yelp, and other external services. Google couldn’t interact directly with third-party services and apps but could deliver search results from the open web. Over the years, they have been improved to become better at connecting. Some Windows apps now support Cortana voice commands; Amazon’s Alexa got a “Skills kit” almost two years ago, which lets developers personalize their voice commands; Google also opened its Assistant to developers, while Siri began to work with a handful of third-party apps in iOS 10.

The “Fantastic Four”

The most obvious thing is that the future lies in the machine’s ability to recognize and process speech. It will be an integral part of the Internet of Things world, from home automation to wearables and connected cars. However, even though they are the current leaders in the world of digital virtual assistance, they all don’t work the same way.

Apple Siri – Siri has smart home controls but supported only for devices in the HomeKit ecosystem. On the other hand, it supports a lot of uses, such as messaging, video and audio calling, photo search, workouts, payments, and ride booking. The flow of conversation is controlled by Apple, which limits users’ options and Siri’s responses.

Google – Google shares the Apple’s vision of playing a gatekeeper role. They decide about the specific keywords that’ll be used for activating a specific third-party service. The developer takes control of the interaction once an approved keyword is spoken by using API.ai (or other AI tools) to carry a conversation out.

Microsoft – Now, Microsoft’s future plans for virtual assistant development are somewhat hazier. Cortana does work with third-party apps in Windows 10, but a system for non-Windows devices won’t be launched until this February. Microsoft mentions that Cortana will be able to present skills to users proactively, in the appropriate context (perhaps to offer additional info in the middle of a conversation).

Amazon Alexa – Amazon was the up-and-comer in 2016, with millions of Alexa devices sold worldwide and sales of their Echo devices increased ninefold over the year. The system includes to-do lists and smart home controls, but it doesn’t seem that its developers are going to stop soon. More capabilities are added to Alexa each week, like checking sports scores, hearing the local weather forecast, calling for an Uber, ordering a pizza from Dominos, or finding some cocktail and food recipes.

The Growing Market

It’s simple—if machine voice interaction starts being used for so many different purposes, then there will be a huge demand for it. When there’s enough demand, any market is “sentenced” to expansion. Business-wise, investing in an AI-focused customer care system can definitely provide your company a competitive advantage, and the recent evolution of VDA systems gives us proof. Besides the virtual assistant developer giants, certain specialized VDAs have been emerging, especially in the business world, such as virtual receptionist assistants.

According to eMarketer, 31% of 14-17 year-olds and 23% of 18-34 year-olds use a VDA on a regular basis. On the other hand, GIA (Global Industry Analysts) expects an expansion of the global market for multi-touch screens driven by a combination of smart computing devices and mobile computing. The market will, according to their research, reach $8 billion by 2020 from $3.5 billion in 2013. Should VDA adoption take off, we could see slower growth for the touch-based interface market.

VDAs aren’t just used on devices like Google Home and Amazon Echo and smartphones. According to Tractica’s recent report, even though the best-known offerings right now are smartphone-based consumer virtual digital assistants, VA technologies are beginning to emerge. They are more and more implemented in PCs, automobiles, fitness trackers, smart watches, and other device types.

By Nate Vickery, Consultant

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