How voice control is changing online search

4 Minutes
Mark Gregory

Not long ago the idea of talking to your computer or asking your mobile phone a question would have been something out of a futuristic film. But now we see a growing number of people expecting their phone to tell them where the nearest pizza restaurant is or where they can buy a part for their car.

There has been massive progress in the technologies needed to help machines understand human speech, including machine learning and statistical data-mining techniques. As we will all have experienced, sophisticated voice technology is already commonplace in call centers, where we are asked to answer various questions in order to pass us to the most relevant customer service rep or indeed not pass us on at all.

Assistants like Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant and Facebook M look set to become major interfaces and change the face of marketing as we currently know it. Certainly the likes of Google Now are changing the way businesses must think about search, as the information Google need to present information to their users is changing. Google’s knowledge graph is growing in importance and smart businesses are adapting their SEO techniques to take advantage of what Google have termed, ‘Micro-Moments’ – the here and now, the exact moment when a user needs something.

Here’s a short video clip that shows you all 50 Google Now commands:

So what are the key trends around voice controls? Who are the main users and what motivates them to use voice control features?

ZenithOptimedia and GlobalWebIndex recently unveiled some emerging trends on mobile, based on responses from a 2015 special re-contact survey. The survey was carried out among 1,800 young mobile internet users, aged 16-24 across Brazil, India, Italy, Malaysia, the UK and the USA.

In answer to the question “How often do you use voice search functions on your mobile phone”, only 12.8% said that they had never used this function and almost half said they were using the tool more than they did a year ago.

The survey also looked at motivations for using voice search on mobile. Coming out top was the importance to them of speed in obtaining the data. 43% responded to the answer, “ it is quicker than going to a website or using an App.”

Practicality is also very important. 42% responded that a main reason for using voice search was that “they can use it while driving or at other times when they can’t interact with their handset”. But usage isn’t all based on serious reasons, the third most popular reason for using the feature was the fun of it.

So what for the future, where is voice control going next?

As things stand currently, voice search & ‘virtual assistance’ look like they are here to stay. The younger generations are without doubt embracing the technology as the latest method in locating information. Anything that cuts down on time wastage and allows access anywhere and anytime is a fundamental asset for today’s modern living.

Technology is constantly evolving, almost every minute of every day and spurred on by the success of voice recognition software on mobile phones, speech interfaces look set to appear in many more places. The next common ground to be conquered will be revolutionising television viewing and accessing information whilst driving in the car, both of which are already available but not yet on a widespread scale.

Built specifically for the new Apple TV, just launched is a Siri Remote which allows you to simply use your voice to find what you want to watch.  This will no doubt become more widespread in the very near future as other companies vie for market share.

New Voice Command Devices (VCDs) are speaker-independent, so they can respond to multiple voices, regardless of accent or dialectal influences. They are also capable of responding to several commands at once, separating vocal messages, and providing appropriate feedback accurately imitating a natural conversation. Certain functions offered by auto brands such as Audi, Lexus and Volvo can now be voice activated.

Science fiction has been almost prophetical in how technology has evolved and if we look back in cinematic history we can see ourselves watching what in fact is a reality today.

For example lone crusader Knight Rider spent most of his time talking to his car ‘KIT’, either from the driving seat or through his wrist watch. Not far removed from the Apple Watch that’s out today!

And British space spoof, Red Dwarf is another prime example of voice activation with the cast asking the main ship’s computer questions as they went about their daily routines. Is this the fore-runner of our home computer cooking the dinner, switching on the washing machine or setting off the lawn sprinkler?

Whether we like it or not, it will be interesting to see where things go from here. Along with the rest of the world, we’ll be watching what develops with voice search and virtual assistance and where it will take us next.