Voice command devices: Ear candy or something useful?

“Alexa! Heads or tails?”

“Alexa! What’s the weather in Dubai?”

“Alexa! Turn up the heat to 75 degrees.”

“Alexa! Tell me a bedtime story.”

Having lived through many hype curves dating back to the Pet Rock, I can’t recall one that has created more buzz than devices like the Amazon Echo that respond to voice commands. Of course, Siri captured our attention just a few years ago, and there was also the recent launch of Google Home.

But, despite a quadrupling of Home sales during the holidays, the Echo rules the arena.

So why does Alexa have such a strong share of mind?

Many would argue that short supplies and back-orders added to the buying frenzy over the holidays. There’s no better advertising than friends telling you they weren’t able to find a device in stores or online in time for the holidays.

From personal buying experience, I agree there is something very special about the design of the device. The smaller Echo Dot had a price point of less than $50 and a form factor that could actually permit the product to be a stocking stuffer or grab-bag item. Where I’m from, virtually every holiday Yankee Swap had an Echo that was being poached by envious swappers.

Echo users spent the holiday season encouraging Alexa to say something silly or tell a dirty joke. They had Alexa order a product on Amazon, simply because they could, and hosted “battles of the Echos” where they tried to get their devices to bicker with each other.

Television and radio pranksters are still having a field day, saying Alexa commands on the air, triggering thousands of unexpected, unpredictable and, in some cases, unsavory responses.

But just like the buzz for virtual reality goggles fades when you realize you can only “ride” so many roller coasters, “fly” so many fighters or “walk” into so many creepy rooms that give you vertigo, the bloom of voice command devices fades after asking for weather reports, sports scores and music playlists.

As with virtual reality, the question of long-term growth and engagement for these devices centers on the content libraries, which can turn these device into something useful, instead of just what I call “ear candy.”

In the case of Alexa, these apps are called “Skills” libraries, and the term “skills” should be used very loosely. This content ranges from local news feeds to highlights from the Tonight Show. But they’re growing rapidly if you have the willpower to find them on your own. I asked Alexa to tell me new Skills to try, but she said I had to look up the Alexa app on my mobile phone!

Amazon keeps their users up to date on the new “skills” developed each week through email updates. Recent experience tells me that many “skills” only reinforce the novelty or “ear-candy”  aspect of voice command devices. For example, a recent “What’s New with Alexa” email suggested I try “Alexa, give me a Groundhog Day movie quote.”

One would think that with all the information Amazon has about my buying habits, I would at least receive a suggestion about a Kindle book that Alexa could read to me via its Audible audio book app. (I’ll probably regret I suggested this in the months ahead!)

As a researcher and writer in healthcare technology, I’m becoming more aware of how content for the device is being applied to give real-life value. For example, Boston Children’s Hospital’s KidsMD skills app taps into a database to provide insights to parents about common children’s aliments. I’ve also spoken to healthcare IT vendors that have applied for HIPPA patient privacy certification for voice command apps and skills. Lenovo is going as far as “creating a full eco-system” that integrates IoT in the home, Alexa, secure messaging, video and a patient portal with health records and savings account data.

And some vendors are launching “skills challenges” where students and developers compete for the best healthcare-related voice command app in a hackathon-style format.

Time will tell how the content libraries develop and whether this delivery channel is of real value or whether it’s just another wave of cool stuff with limited utility.

Is your enterprise testing voice-enabled technologies and content?

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