Recently I was on a panel at the 4A's CreateTech in Los Angeles to talk about our recent research series with NPR, The Smart Audio Report. One of the questions we tackled: what's next for this burgeoning technology? One of the principle findings of our research was just how quickly these devices work their way into the daily fabric of everyday life, one small task at a time. With new entries coming from Apple and Microsoft, in addition to the Alexa family of devices and Google Home, there will soon be a smart speaker for everyone.
So what does the future hold for these devices? In the panel, I touched on three challenges and opportunities for the next iteration of smart speakers:
1. Privacy and Security
In the Smart Audio Report, we asked a sample of non-smart speaker owners who were interested in these devices why they had not yet pulled the trigger. The top three answers were fairly typical for consumer technology (price, etc.) but if you dig deeper, you'll see that a number of the top responses have to do with some aspect of privacy or security. Even the bottom issue on this list (concern that the government might be listening) is a significant concern (and one that might have been laughed away ten years ago!)
I'll admit to having some qualms about this aspect of smart speakers myself. I live in a busy, high-rise apartment in Downtown Boston, and I have this recurring nightmare about people walking by my front door and just yelling at it: "ALEXA--BUY ME A YACHT" and boom, I'm a boat owner. Even something so simple as "Alexa, what's my checking account balance?" becomes a seething vortex of existential despair if you follow this thinking too far.
You can also apply these concerns to one of the great opportunities these devices could potentially seize: home health monitoring. Those of us with elderly parents can immediately see the benefits of having a device that is always listening for a potential accident or health crisis--but these kinds of skills might cross into the realm of HIPAA data--and that's also problematic.
Finally, we know from our research that more than half of smart speaker owners have made a purchase on their devices--but the demographics of those purchasers do lean quite young. To make audio purchases a truly mainstream behavior, manufacturers are simply going to have to deal with what are some very legitimate concerns about personal data.
2. The Proactive Computer
Right now, these devices are like good little children--they only speak when spoken to. But (apropos of the health discussion above) how much would we welcome or even tolerate them talking to to us--first? "Tom, I don't think you should drink that milk" is a skill I'd probably enable, and I might also be willing to let these devices remind me of recurring purchases that I probably should be making right about now, like new razor blades, or non-spoiled milk.
But where would you draw the line on this kind of proactivity? One line that I don't think many of us want these devices to cross is into the realm of unsolicited advertising or messaging. Part of what makes these devices so integral to the lives of their owners is that they haven't yet ruined our day with advertising. If your Google Home were to pipe up in the middle of the afternoon to remind you that the Pixel 2 is now on sale, this would be I suspect an unwelcome development for most of us. And it would also harm our trust, which gets back to my first point, above. How willing would we be to connect our smart speaker to our bank if it continually piped up with financial services offerings?
3. The Conversation
Finally, the thing I am most excited about--the coming ability to have deeper conversations with these devices. The BBC is already experimenting with an interactive fiction audio drama called The Inspection Chamber that operates like an audio "choose your adventure" or even Zork, to alienate my millennial readers.
But branching audio only scratches the surface of where these devices can go. Imagine listening to a news broadcast, and after hearing a brief story about China, asking your device for more information about the company named, or the political figure discussed. News stories that allow for deeper investigation might apply a kind of audio branding for topics that can be queried further.
Eventually, our news might sound very much like the newscasts from the criminally-underrated Paul Verhoeven film, Starship Troopers:
"Would you like to know more?"