Tim Cook Apple WWDC

What to Watch for in Voice at Apple’s WWDC Keynote 2019, And What Actually Happened

Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) keynote presentation is always full of announcements ranging from the exciting to the mundane and very occasionally groundbreaking. Monday afternoon’s address by Apple CEO Tim Cook promises to continue that tradition, with news about every facet of Apple’s software, downloading to iPhones, Macs, and Apple Watches in the next few months. While most of the news won’t explicitly address voice technology, there will be some important news developments likely to be woven into the demonstrations.

Bret Kinsella and I compiled a few topics to watch for, the current context surrounding them and will report on the results. Check back here after the keynotes to see our handicap of how they fared in each of these categories. Also, check out @bretkinsella live tweeting during the keynotes.

Watch the Watch (Eric)

The Apple Watch operating system doesn’t always get as much attention as other software, but watchOS 6, which Apple is likely to debut today, will bring some big changes. The new OS will revamp how the watch works, including getting its own App Store, and more health applications for starters. Could this be where we see true voice-first apps appear in the iOS ecosystem? It would make sense given that the watch screen is so limited voice interaction is often a superior user experience.

In terms of voice technology, the Apple Watch will be getting a voice memos app along with Animoji and Memoji stickers, all of which require improvements in the voice analysis software in the watch. The software will also include a way to measure external noise, suggesting Apple sees voice interactions with the watch as an interface they want to encourage and improve.

Result: As expected, there are a lot of updates coming to the Apple Watch. The new, separate App Store, the new health and other apps were all part of the presentation. The decoupling of all Apple Watch apps from the rest of the ecosystem will also make it easier to use the Apple Watch without needing an iPhone. Also as predicted, the new software will enable Apple Watches to measure external noise. Notably, the watch won’t record and keep the noise measurements it makes. That should satisfy some of the privacy concerns that have become a major point of discussion in the industry.

New Siri Domains Means Siri in More Apps (Bret)

Domains are the iOS features where Siri can be used in maps. Siri has been limited for some time to just 10 domains that enable iOS app developers to use the voice assistant to initiate calls, create lists, and book rides among other capabilities. Rumors suggest these domains will expand by 7-10 categories, maybe doubling the scope of Siri’s prowess. More importantly, media playback and search are expected to be among the new domains. These are such common feature needs within apps that the move could greatly expand Siri’s presence in the iOS ecosystem among third-party developers. You can read Voicebot’s earlier analysis here.

Result: Not sure on this one. The new domains could be there or on the way, but there was no mention of them. What that tells me is the new domains won’t roll out until the September hardware event at the earliest and be positioned as a teaser about what apps will be able to do on the new iPhone. If these domains were anywhere near ready, then WWDC would have been the time to announce when iOS developers are paying close attention. Google just rolled out domains at its I/O developer conference so this would have been an ideal way to spotlight an area where Apple has a slight lead, except apparently is does not.

Siri Shortcuts Anyone? (Bret)

Apple introduced Siri shortcuts in 2018 as its way to make Siri more helpful. Shortcuts enable users to set up routines that coordinate actions by one or more iOS apps after the user says a designated phrase. For example, “Hey Siri, start my morning,” might play music, check commute time to work, and turn on the lights in the kitchen. There is very little talk of this feature in the Apple community which suggests it may be lightly used. Also, it only works if the app developers make features explicitly available to Siri Shortcuts. This was a focus at two events last year as Apple’s answer to criticism about its lack of AI programs. Apple almost certainly will add to Shortcuts to make it more capable and appealing.

Result: No rumors were circulating about Siri Shortcuts, but maybe that is because so few people care and no one was asking. But, there was an announcement. Siri Shortcuts will start recommending shortcut routines based on user behavior. That was Voicebot’s recommendation last fall when Shortcuts were demonstrated with modest improvements over the June 2018 announcements. It’s okay to allow users to create their own routines using shortcuts. However, using AI to recommend ways that Siri can be more helpful is a better way to drive user discovery and reduce friction for adoption.

Reorganized Services and an Entertainment Focus (Eric)

Apple device users may have noticed some changes in its presence online, specifically eliminating its iTunes pages on Facebook and Instagram, and a general movement away from its flagship music and media program. After nearly 20 years, it looks like Apple is switching to standalone apps for music, television, and podcasts on computers, much like it does on mobile devices. Reorganizing the media ecosystem to reflect how iPhones and iPads operate puts Apple into more of a media and entertainment mode, as opposed to a focus on productivity, communication,  and information access.

How that impacts the voice interactions offered by Apple isn’t totally clear. It could mean more people using Siri to find and play their entertainment, or it could mean less reliance on voice for carrying out functions because the system is better organized and easier to search by touch and typing.

Result: Entertainment was front and center, with Apple’s plans for television opening the keynote. Much as the new Apple Watch App Store decouples the device from the iPhone, the new system of media apps opens up new opportunities for people to access Apple’s entertainment offerings without buying into every other product. The voice element remains mostly subtext for now, but Siri’s upcoming changes could be critical to Apple’s entertainment plans.

Augmented Reality, Augmented Interaction (Eric)

One space where Apple is continuing to pour investment is in augmented and virtual reality. New features have been arriving every year, with the expectation that Apple will roll out its own AR glasses in the near future, possibly as early as next year according to some reports. While there’s no way to tell precisely what Apple’s vision for AR will look like, there’s no denying the utility of voice interactions when using AR systems to navigate a program. Even if it’s all under the hood improvements, Apple will need to step up its voice technology offerings to truly be able to compete with Google, Amazon, and others eager to dominate in this space.

Result: There was a big empty spot for augmented reality in the keynote. What this means for Apple’s long-term plans isn’t clear. Most likely the company is saving the big announcements about it for the hardware conference in the fall. Subtle changes in the software may point to more specific plans for the next few years, however.

Multimodal, SiriOS and Other Longshots (Bret)

It is also possible that Apple will add multimodel capabilities using Siri with iPad or TVs. This would be an introduction of Siri into a quasi-smart display market that leverages existing screen-based devices instead of purpose-built devices. Apple’s history of integrating complex user experiences could offer us a new take on how the simultaneous interaction of voice and visual model will play out.

A bigger deal with a SiriOS of sorts along the lines of what we see with Alexa with its Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) or Google Assistant’s Actions on Google. Without this, Siri will continue to lag behind Alexa and Google Assistant because it lacks a voice-first framework for delivering new user experiences. The PullString acquisition could have been a move in this direction, but it seems unlikely Apple will be ready for a move this bold in 2019.

Result: The multimodal prediction turned out to be half right. Positioned as an accessibility feature, Voice Control showed voice and visual working in concert. However, it was for voice navigation with visual confirmation, so not your standard multimodal integration of voice and visual elements. With that said, there it was. Voice navigation on both Mac and iPhone demonstrated. In 2020, you can bet that will be morphed into a general user feature with modified use cases. It is a great use of voice for accessibility in the meantime.

There was talk of watchOS and Watch apps being decoupled from iOS which is a requirement of a SiriOS. So, there is an architectural movement in the right direction. Today, however, no SiriOS is on the horizon for 2019.

What Will Be the Apple Surprise? Check Back Here for Updates

The WWDC keynote will, as always, be full of interesting bits of news, both intentional, and in the subtext. That’s not counting the always expected “surprise” one more thing, that Apple loves to do at these events. We’ll update afterward this post afterward and grade Tim Cook and his guests on their voice tech news. Check back after the speech, which begins at 1 p.m. ET. You can watch it here.


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