Voicebot Interview: Onsei is Bringing Voice Applications to Germany

Onsei stands out as a voice application development agency in Germany that is doing work both in the country and for the U.S. market. Recently, Onsei helped Blinkist build its Alexa skill for the U.S. Voicebot connected with Onsei’s co-founders, Leon Müller and Jochen Emig, to learn more about how the firm was started and what the voice scene is like in Berlin.

How did Onsei come about?

Leon Müller: We participated in a hackathon in Berlin in October 2016 and won it by building the first version of the BVG Alexa skill. It was an IBM hackathon and the skill was in English first. [Editors note: BVG is the public transit system in Berlin and includes rail and bus schedules. The skill will tell you the time tables for public transit such as when the next train is arriving and how to use public transit to travel between two locations.]

Jochen Emig: We then started negotiating on prices with BVG to develop a full fledged app for them. We both came from the developer community and we started getting offers for services from companies.

Tell Me About Your Personal Backgrounds.

Müller: My background is in sales, marketing, product and design. I started in the UK and built two recruiting companies. I then joined the startup scene in Berlin, but went back to London with Angelist. I came back to Berlin to work in a small agency building apps before getting into the voice space.

Emig: I moved to Berlin in July 2016. Before that I was living in Singapore working in startups and leading tech teams. I have a programming background working a lot with AWS. At an event I attended in Boston an Amazon guy brought out an Echo and started showing it off. I had my first skill published in the U.S. I then started moving all of my home automation things to Alexa and building things for fun.

When I moved back to Germany, I brought my echoes with me from Boston. I was missing a lot of the skills that were available in the U.S. marketplace that I couldn’t use anymore.

What were some of the Alexa skills you built at that time?

Emig: Color Game. It is a memory game that families play. Everything since then has been published as Onsei.

Tell me about the German interest level in Alexa.

Müller: There are not many agencies building Alexa skills in Germany. One-third of the people are super excited and can’t wait. One-third are not very aware of it, kind of skeptical and still very focused on a screen and want to touch something. The remaining third are skeptical of having a microphone in the home. We see this as we talk to clients. Typically, we build demo apps to show them the potential.

When we started the company [Amazon Echo] wasn’t even released in Germany yet. Now that it has been in the market for a few months it is changing dramatically. We are now seeing clients that have them at home and know how they work.

Emig: There was a big chatbot hype a year ago. Companies really invested in it and machine learning fields. Voice was a natural follow-on. There are not a lot of agencies that write skills for other companies, but people write a lot of skills for fun by themselves.

A lot of the Alexa skills in Germany are the quiz skills that you can hack together in a few hours. More skills where people return and come back are coming. The first wave of users were people testing it. The downside is the first few skills were not that great. However, the new skills coming out are good. The user interaction they offer is good. The conversations are better.

How many Amazon Echo have been sold in Germany to date?

Müller: Forbes has reported some numbers. It said, three to four hundred thousand units sold since launch through March. Amazon has also quietly started selling devices in Austria, but not officially.

Tell me about your Client Work.

Müller: Blinkist is a customer. Blinkist offers 60 to 90-second summaries of books or white papers. It will be published in U.S., UK and Germany. We also have a Fortune 500 client.

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What is it like building skills for multiple countries and languages?

Müller: When we did our first skill in English, we thought we would just translate it and be done. But that wasn’t right. We had to deal with complex grammar rules.

Emig: People would have laughed at us if we released it that way. It took awhile to translate and update the BVG skill for use in German even though we had already built the English-language version in the hackathon. And, even though the devices were available [last fall], it took Amazon a month or two to get the skills [certified]. Since February you can get them the next day.

What is your favorite Alexa skill?

Müller: BVG because it is ours and it works amazingly well. I use Alexa for Spotify as well as other entertainment and news.

Emig: I have a few. My taxi is Uber. I tweak my flash news to perfection and listen to it every day. I spent awhile tweaking it. My household is still using U.S. settings. We have Alexa also in German and I wish I could merge those two. But, [I am a] creature of habit and used to using it in English. The U.S. still gives better answers today. I also have Google Home and Cortana running.

What are your perceptions of Google Home?

Emig: It is a very interesting voice assistant that is different from Alexa. When you use Google Home you have this handover to an actual skill. The voice changes and you know you are talking to a different AI and different environment. This comes across more clearly having different voices for different skills on Google Home.

It is more difficult to write skills for Google Assistant unless you use API.ai. But, when you deal with it you have more control. With Alexa, you have to do it the way they want. With Google Home you can create your own magic. We are writing an action-adventure story type game right now for both platforms.

What is the meaning behind your company’s name?

Müller: Onsei is Japanese for voice. Jochen lived in Japan for a few years and it came up as an option.

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