Many people use digital assistants for the basics, like weather forecast or music. NYT PIC

THESE days, you can find virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant in all sorts of things, from smart speakers and smartphones to washing machines and bathroom mirrors.

The challenge isn’t finding these digitised helpers, it is finding people who use them to do much more than they could with the old clock or radio in the bedroom.

A management consulting firm recently looked at heavy users of virtual assistants, defined as people who use one more than three times a day. The firm, Activate, found that the majority of these users turned to virtual assistants to play music, get the weather, set a timer or ask questions.

Activate also found that the majority of Alexa users had never used more than the basic apps that come with the device, although Amazon said its data suggested that four of five registered Alexa customers have used at least one of the more than 30,000 “skills” — third-party apps that tap into Alexa’s voice controls to accomplish tasks — it makes available.

But, while some hard-core fans are indeed tapping into advanced features of virtual assistants, like controlling the lights in their homes, for the most part, “people are still using these speakers for very routine tasks”, said Michael J. Wolf, founder of Activate.

Apple popularised the virtual assistant concept in 2011 when it introduced the technology called Siri in its iPhones. About three years later, Amazon debuted the Echo, a speaker packed with microphones to capture and decipher what we’re saying to Alexa. Soon, various technology companies were betting that speaking to machines through virtual assistants would be an essential
way for consumers to interact with devices and services in the future.

There is a reason tech companies think virtual assistants are so important: They want to control an indispensable “platform” — a crucial piece of technology other services or devices must rely upon.

Some believe virtual assistant technology can be that sort of platform, and the company with the most useful assistant will gain an advantage for their other services — like Internet search or online shopping. Lose that competition, however, and a company could be at the mercy of its rivals.

With those stakes in mind, tech giants have been scrambling to make their assistants omnipresent. Since smart speakers are the main way for people to deal with virtual assistants, Amazon and Google stoked holiday sales with heavy discounts, dropping the price of their entry-level models to US$30 (RM119), from US$50. At the same time, tech companies have been putting their assistants inside products of all shapes and sizes.

Before last week’s International CES (consumer electronics and technology trade show) conference in Las Vegas, Amazon announced a string of new Alexa partnerships. Hisense will put the assistant into its television sets, while Kohler said a new bathroom mirror will have built-in microphones so people can use Alexa to dim the lights and fill a bathtub using voice commands. PC makers like HP, Asus and Acer said they were integrating Alexa into their computers, while Panasonic, Garmin and other electronics makers will do the same for devices that go into cars.

Amazon also announced an agreement with Toyota to integrate Alexa into some Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Ditto for a new smoke alarm from First Alert. Google said LG Televisions, headphones from Sony and smart displays from Lenovo will tap into its Assistant.

For now, consumers’ satisfaction with their smart speakers — and by extension, the onboard assistants — is helped in part by the fact they didn’t pay a lot to get them into their homes.

Justin Hosseininejad, an engineering consultant from Medina, Ohio, said he bought his first Amazon Echo Dot for US$50 last year and got a second one free a few months ago with another Internet-connected device, the Nest thermostat. He uses them to listen to news in the morning and play music throughout the day. He recognises that he’s not asking Alexa to do a lot, but considering how little he paid, he is fine with that.

“There’s only certain things I use it for, but I’m happy with it,” he said. “I’m not doing my taxes with it.”

Paul Erickson, a senior analyst at the research firm IHS Markit, said the next step for these devices will be to become the hub of a connected home, controlling Internet-connected lights, thermostats and other basic home appliances.

“The more interesting functionality is yet to come,” Erickson said. “Part of that will come as more integration happens this year and next year. This is the first year we’re going to see real advances with the assistants because of competition in the marketplace.”

Amazon would say only that it sold “tens of millions” of Alexa devices during the recent holiday season, millions more than the same period last year. Analysts estimate that Echo accounts for more than 70 per cent of sales in the smart speaker category, with Google a distant second.

Google was also coy about revealing exact sales of Google Home. In a statement on Jan 5, Google announced it has sold one Google Home smart speaker every second since it started shipping a smaller version of voice-controlled device on Oct 19 — or about 79 days. That works out to roughly seven million units.

In the 20 months since it first started making the Google Assistant available as part of its Allo messaging app, Google said its Assistant is now accessible on more than 400 million devices including washing machines, dryers, air-conditioners, refrigerators and dishwashers from LG, headphones from Bose and a range of speakers from 15 companies. NYT

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