I’ve Seen the Future, and It’s Voice Activated

Smartphones are awesome. But aren’t you sick of looking at the tiny screen, especially if you wear glasses? A hundred times a day you stop in your tracks to navigate some groovy mobile interface to get a tiny piece of information—an address, a gate number, maybe a change in direction. The screen is a litter bigger now with plus sized phones, but we’re talking micro-centimeters, which isn’t going to solve text neck or reduce your chiropractor visits. For years, I have been waiting for the virtual reality device that would replace smartphones. Would it be Google Glass, or Cardboard, or would Samsung, Apple, or some other tech innovator change the world with something new? It is actually none of these. It’s the voice interface, with products like Alexa and Siri.

Done right, it’s a lot easier and faster to say something and get an answer than to use a visual interface. Waze has already solved thousands of car accidents—and 65% of all family arguments—just by telling us which direction to turn. Siri and Alexa are okay, but many people agree that, as annoying as it might be to others, whispering or yelling emails and text messages at your iPhone is magical in terms of convenience. These days, almost everyone has become conditioned to expect that words will be wrong in texts, or emails, but they still get what you mean. So it’s not a problem that your emails don’t come out exactly right.

But there’s still a long way to go. Alexa is just a fun toy. It takes too long to wake up, you have to think too hard about how to phrase your question, and the answers are still too rudimentary to be really useful. If, like one of my friends, your name is actually Alexa, forget about it; your home life will be a living robotic hell. But the voice interface is going to get better. Artificial intelligence technology will cause it to understand you and your speech pattern and quirks, and the answers will get more and more exact and nuanced.

Consider the potential applications and market opportunities, as people think of more and better ways to exploit this new interface. It is still early, but it’s obvious that there will be some big financial wins in this space. The Beats sale to Apple was just the beginning of the big tech companies’ increasing and accelerating foray into audio. As voice activation gets better, the headphone and Bluetooth speaker markets will go crazy and this will drive more innovation in apps. This is great news for artists and the music streaming business. These technologies will create greater penetration of sound devices in our everyday lives. Hopefully, there will come a time when you can’t avoid having excellent sound.

But the music business is not even the half of it. Voice activation is the next big thing in mobile, home, and automobile computing. As a sector, it has the potential to change computing as much as mobile phones or efficient search engines. Any application you can think of can be, and will become, accessible by voice technology, and this will drive an enormous amount of financial value in the capital markets over the next five years. Audio will not eclipse the changes that virtual reality will bring. They are on parallel paths. But audio will hit consumers in a big way, and sooner. And for augmented reality applications, audio will do far more than any fancy visual interface could ever have done.