BBC Voice Assistant Beeb Launches in Beta in the UK

BBC just now introduced Beeb, a voice assistant designed to provide a variety of new services and easier access to the organization’s massive content catalog and digital programming. Beeb is only available today in a beta release which is limited to UK users that are members of Microsoft’s Windows Insider Programme. This is a group that is accustomed to testing new technology and will be “experimenting with features and generally putting the voice assistant through its paces,” according to BBC’s blog. You can sign up to become a member of the programme here.

Beeb + Microsoft Azure AI

The Windows Insider beta angle is not surprising given the technology powering the new voice assistant. Beeb was developed entirely on top of Microsoft Azure AI services. According to Andy Webb, a Voice President of Product and Head of Voice + AI at BBC, Microsoft was a great option for Beeb for a couple of reasons. First, Webb said that Microsoft shared many of BBC’s perspectives on the role of voice assistants and the ethics that should guide their use. Beyond the alignment in values, Microsoft also offered a full set of tools that enabled BBC create Beeb on a single stack of technology.

Everything from natural language processing to natural language generation was sourced from Azure AI services. BBC complemented this with internally developed tools it uses today to manage the distribution, management, and access to content.

The Sound of BBC

Webb said the sound of Beeb’s speaking voice was among the most arduous tasks because they knew there are strongly held perceptions about BBC and its brand. The Beeb’s persona is embodied in a male voice that is designed to be not Southern England or London but in someplace further north but difficult to place.

BBC Beeb Features

Beeb is launching in beta but has a number of current and future capabilities that are available as demonstrations. A core feature is easy access to radio, podcasts, and other audio programming via voice request. Another is BBC programme information. Users can ask about specific shows, on-air talent, and when new shows will air or be available.

BBC is also introducing an “Update Me” personal update feature (demonstrated at the top of this article) that offers news and information customized for the users’ interests. This feature appears is reminiscent of Google Assistant’s “Your News Update” but in this case is entirely BBC content and there are options for personalization.

Beeb is also extending interactions with popular shows by enabling users to get facts and other insights directly from the show talent. And, Beeb is trained to identify and manage what the team calls sensitive conversations. The demonstration provided was of someone saying they were depressed. Beeb responded by speaking in an empathetic tone and then guiding the user to resources that may be helpful.

A Vision for Voice and Media

In 2017, BBC began supporting Alexa in the UK because the organization recognized that voice interaction was likely to be a big part of the future of media. “We did a series of experiments,” including several Alexa skills for both adult and child audiences and expanded into other countries and Google Assistant. Since that time BBC has accumulated between 1.5-2 million weekly users through voice assistants and has served nearly “a billion pieces of content” according to Webb. That experience convinced the team that they needed their own assistant.

However, BBC isn’t looking to replace the Alexa and Google Assistant ecosystems. The Beeb is designed to better serve those voice platforms, other services provided by automakers and app providers, and BBC’s own digital properties.

“Part of my team’s job is not just to build outward-facing audience experiences but to build the platform technology that will democratize that voice technology stack and allow for that to be incorporated into our existing digital real estate. So, for example, you can have natural language search throughout news, throughout iPlayer, or throughout BBC Sounds — the ability to build hands-free experiences for our digital real estate. If people listen to their podcasts on the phone and they get into the car and they connect the phone to their Bluetooth and from there we can still provide a voice interactive and voice navigation experience.”

Webb says this same backend will also serve queries coming from their Amazon Alexa skills and Google Actions. You can think of Beeb as an NLP engine that can respond using multiple outputs ranging from Beeb to a third-party’s voice assistant. Seeing the inevitability of a multi-assistant world, BBC wanted to provide backend tooling that could enable some commonality in the user experience regardless of which channel the request originated.

The Rise of Custom and Specialty Voice Assistants

Beeb is an early example of what is already becoming a common phenomenon: custom branded voice assistants. BBC is not the first to have voice interactivity in media. Comcast’s Xfinity Voice and others have offered voice search as a user feature for years. It is also not the first organization to have a branded assistant the promotes a specific type of user interaction. Bank of America, Capital One, and numerous automakers have a few years lead on this. And, Deutsche Telekom’s Magenta also offers a strong media search and interaction experience. With that said, BBC’s approach and vision here is more advanced than any I have seen with the possible exception of Capital One Bank in the U.S.

Capital One has a common backend solution that supports its own custom assistant, Eno, through multiple digital channels including its own mobile and web properties. It also can respond to queries from the company’s Alexa skill. BBC is going a little further because it has a mission to provide public access to its content. As a result, Beeb is as much a web service for all sorts of potential clients to access as it is a standalone voice assistant. Beeb has a ways to go to mature on the both the front and back end but it looks like a good start and is sure to serve as a template for many other media companies that follow.

The project is also a boost for Microsoft’s ambitions around providing the backend for AI-enabled assistants. Microsoft’s Bot Framework has been very popular with chatbot makers and others looking to integrate chatbots with their voice skills. The addition of Azure AI services and the ability to quickly deploy a custom assistant with a single technology stack could make Microsoft the go-to white label provider of custom voice assistants for the enterprise.

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