IFA 2019 Takes Assistants Everywhere to a New Level
The IFA (Internationale Funkausstellung) Show occurred this past week in Berlin. It is certainly Europe’s largest tech show, and some would say it has now surpassed the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES). I hit CES every year and this was my second IFA, but something radically changed this year in the world of Voice Assistants. I’m going to make up a conversation based on 2 imaginary people. For fun I’ll call them Sundar and Jeff:
Hey Sundar, we are both spending over a billion dollars a year on AI development work for our Assistants, and now our marketing battles have escalated more and more. How about we call a marketing truce?
That could make sense. It’s also a nice time to be very profitable with the corporate tax cuts that have happened recently. So should we scale back marketing at IFA Berlin?
Yeah, all that signage that we’ve both been paying for has been hitting my bottom line, and I don’t think we need to invest that much anymore as our brands are so dominant.
OK that’s fine. We don’t need big booths either because all of our customers will display our names across the show floor. But what about all the actors I hire to wear silly white clothes with red, blue, green and yellow colors added?
Sure. Let’s both limit the number of people we hire for that and lets just have them dress more normal with our brands on their t-shirts.
That makes sense, Jeff. Last year we both offered lanyards, should we drop that too?
Sure, the more I can save, the better. And I’m collecting so much good data that I’ll be rolling out some cool new hardware products soon to keep my top line moving upwards.
Yes, we are getting serious about hardware as well. It’s good that all our partners don’t seem to understand that or care
Yes, I admit that their margin is my opportunity, and I’m making it a reality!
So…enough imaginative writing. This year’s IFA show was remarkably different than last year. Google Assistant and Alexa were in more products than ever before. For purposes of this writing I will use the term Assistant to represent all assistants generically. Assistants have reached the point of ubiquity.
Assistant Presence Was Pervasive, but Different Than 2018
Google Assistant and Alexa equipped products were EVERYWHERE. Last year it was speakers, now it’s everything. A lot of products now support Apple HomeKit, and many other products take advantage of Bluetooth and mobile protocols for double clicking to call whatever Assistant you have on device. This feature was most pronounced in true wireless stereo (TWS) headsets, which typically deploy no embedded command ability but enable a double button click to talk to a smartphone-based Assistant. Shenzhen Horn had a voice activated TWS headset, and the rumor mill said that 1More did as well but I couldn’t find it there.
No Sprechen Sie Bixby in Berlin this year. Bixby was nowhere to be seen. Samsung did take the heavy prize for marketing the entrances but the branding was all about Samsung not Bixby.
Assistants as Standard Features
Many products developed Alexa or Google skills and were on display but with little distinction or clear differentiation. When I talked to the booth personnel there seemed to be some level of ambivalence. Those that didn’t use Assistants said they might. Those that did use Assistants had a hard time articulating any differentiation when most of their competitors supported it as well.
There was some level of privacy concerns raised but the general feel was that the mics could be turned off, and those with a little more technical sophistication had the false belief that wake words on device-maintained privacy. They don’t. False fires are very common (more-so with Alexa than Google, and all the data is still collected and saved even though it was clearly not intended for such use).
Facilitating Assistant Proliferation
Along with the huge numbers of product companies sporting Assistant integration, there were a handful of infrastructure players like LinkPlay, Sugr, Stream Unlimited and Audiogum that provide software and hardware consulting or modules to make it easier to embed assistants.
Chip companies with speech offerings at the show included DSPG, NXP, Qualcomm, Quicklogic, and Realtek. There were probably others that I missed. I even bumped into Alango and saw demos by DSPC, who each have noise processing designed to improve speech recognition. Some of the sound testing houses like Fraunhofer and Vocalize.io had representation at the show.
Speech tech companies beyond Google and Amazon were few and far between. Snips was at a press event but wasn’t showing demos there. They did, however, mention their initial design wins with Careos (smart mirror) and ProKNX (smart building). I walked the show floor for Sensory and gave demos of embedded natural language, speaker verification, and other technologies in the Sensory product line. Sensory had lots of customers at the show. We have about 300 active licenses with too many at the show to mention and too risky if I miss some!
Some Voice AI Technology Standouts from IFA 2019
Below are the companies and products I found most interesting and innovative in the areas of speech and AI (and to be unbiased I am NOT including any Sensory equipped products).
Gigaaa: A new Assistant is in town. Gigaaa is a voice assistant for people and businesses. They differentiate by being usable in private clouds, which could appeal to Enterprises. And they have achieved success in Germany along with some of the countries where Google and Alexa have had trouble entering because of language requirements (Turkey, Russia, Egypt, etc.).
BSH: BSH Home Appliances is the largest European manufacturer of home appliances. It was originally a joint venture between Bosch and Siemens, and in late 2014 Robert Bosch GMBH bought out Siemens 50% stake so BSH is run today as a wholly owned subsidiary. At IFA they showed a very nice “concept” demonstration of a voice controlled washing machine that used natural language. This was quite unique as they were one of the only companies showcasing on device natural language. I believe it was a Kaldi based implementation and the intelligence could be embedded within an app or actually within the device to avoid the privacy concerns of using a Google Assistant or Alexa type of interface.
Hoover: In the U.S., we may associate Hoover with vacuum cleaners where the brand got its start, but in Europe it’s part of the Candy Group which is part of the Chinese Giant Haier. Hoover is also known for washing machines and dryers in Europe and is taking a stab at alternatives to the traditional Assistants for use in a washing machine. At IFA 2019, the company introduced the AXI Washing Machine equipped with not only voice control but also stain and fabric recognition technology. They created their own natural language interface using Google’s DialogFlow. I believe this provides them more control and might keep the customers conversations away from the ever learning Google Assistant. DialogFlow is a nice NLU engine (acquired from API.ai) that uses the very powerful Google recognizer and provides a state of the art cloud based experience.
Deutsche Telekom Magenta: Deutsche Telekom introduced their own smart speaker, which was the only SoundHound tech I could find at the show. I got a nice demo but it was in a special sound proofed room, and they turned off the air conditioner in the room before giving the demo. So, being a speech guy I’m a little skeptical about whether it would work in the real world. Of course, trade show floors are VERY noisy.
PixieDust: OK, they didn’t make my top four but they had one of the cooler audio technologies I’ve ever experienced. I think they are a university spinoff from Japan and they had some sort of planar array or electro static speaker that was extremely directional. They called it some sort of “wave control” technology and their website says, “We modify the physical world using computer-controlled invisible forces. We make a paradigm shift from THINGS to FIELDS and deliver magical experiences to users.” Anyways, they could focus music on a particular point and if you stood to the side of it you couldn’t hear it. This worked from 10 or 15 feet away in a lot of noise. It was pretty amazing, but unfortunately there was no low end (I guess it’s too omni-directional), so it could not really be used for music, but it may be a great way to get someone out of a meeting without disturbing the others!
Of course, the most striking difference from IFA 2018 was not an innovative new technology at all. The far lower profile of Alexa and Google Assistant in terms of marketing presence was easily noticed. Alexa and Google Assistant were still “everywhere” thanks to their many partners. However, it will be interesting to see if they both also opt for a lower profile at CES 2020 now that awareness is nearly 100%.
Todd Mozer is CEO and founder of Sensory.