Why virtual assistants are the ‘killer app’ for wearables

Why virtual assistants are the ‘killer app’ for wearables

‘Hearables’ and smart glasses will keep us in range of our virtual assistants everywhere, all the time.

Credit: Keoni Cabral / Flickr

Star Trek got it right.

In the future, we’ll interact with computers mostly by talking.

But for those computers to be available for instant interaction, they’ll have to be attached to our physical persons. I’m talking about virtual assistants on wearable devices.

Technologists are ambivalent about both virtual assistants and wearables. Some love and rely upon them. Others are indifferent.

That’s why it may seem unlikely that these two technologies, used together, are the future of computing. Still, it’s going to happen.

Stay with me here, because by the end of this column I think you’ll see clearly how inevitable this scenario is.

Wearables as mobile smart speakers

The way to think of wearables is as the mobile versions of smart speakers, such as the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod. (Apple announced this week that it’s HomePod product release has been delayed from this year to “early next year.”)

This month marks the three-year anniversary of the launch of Amazon’s Echo smart speaker. When it first emerged, the media labeled it “crazy,” “weird,” “not very useful” and “nothing new.”

Tech fans took to message boards and social media to express disdain, calling it “pointless” because virtual assistants already existed on the phone. The phone-based assistants were and are pretty easy to use, so the additional “convenience” of just talking to the room seemed frivolous. Many still feel this way. This perspective is based on the false assumption that new technologies go mainstream because they’re “necessary,” “practical” or even “useful.”

The same week the Echo launched, however, I argued for its importance and predicted in this space how popular it would become.

The critics were right about one thing: Nobody “needs” a smart speaker.

But it’s also true that nobody “needs” smartphones, 4K TVs or drones. “Need” has almost nothing to do why culture-changing technologies go mainstream.

Tech products go mainstream because they feel good to use.

And that’s why the Amazon Echo is a runaway hit, now emulated by the industry’s biggest technology companies. Because it feels good to use.

Instead of thinking about smart speakers as devices, products or technologies, think of them as enablers of specific human behaviors.

With a smart speaker in the home, you just talk and get an audible answer or result (like turning on the lights). It’s gratifying. And gratification is what drives end-user technologies.

Over the next few years, the following four things will happen:

In fact, virtual assistants are to wearables what the internet was to smartphones. OK, I’d better explain that.

The internet came online in 1969, but most people didn’t even know about it until the ’90s. What changed was the invention of the web in the late ’80s and the creation of the first Windows web browser in 1993.

Over the next decade or so, an increasing number of businesses and individual people concluded that the internet was so important that they never wanted to be without it.

It took decades for always-connected access to the internet to emerge, but public desire for it drove, and still drives, demand for smartphones.

Today, people are gradually realizing they don’t want to be without virtual assistant-powered smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo line, Google Home and, soon, Apple HomePod.

As this happens, the public will grow increasingly unhappy about not being able to do the “smart speaker behavior” of just talking when they’re away from their smart speaker. They’ll want access all the time.

Smartphones can’t enable the “smart speaker behavior,” despite hands-free options available for some phones and some virtual assistants. (When a smartphone is in a pocket or purse, you can’t just talk to the virtual assistant app installed on it — unless you have a wearable peripheral such as earbuds.)

The rise of A.I. wearables

Technology market research firm Counterpoint estimates that roughly one-third of the wearables shipping this year will be powered by artificial intelligence, or A.I.

Fully half of those A.I.-powered wearables are “hearables” — smart earbuds such as Apple’s AirPods and Bragi’s Dash, according to Counterpoint. (Bragi Dash earbuds support Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant.)

AirPods are designed entirely around Apple’s Siri virtual assistant. By double-tapping on the AirPods, Siri is conjured and will answer questions as well as enable voice control of music, podcasts and other features.

Google’s Pixel Buds are getting negative reviews, but reviewers praise Google Assistant integration.

And a wide variety of more narrowly targeted virtual assistant headphones, earbuds and similar products has emerged recently, including Vinci 2.0, Onvocal OV, MonsterTalk Headphones, Sony’s N concept and Xperia Ear product, and Lifebeam’s Vi.

A Hong Kong startup called Origami Labs even has a smart ring wearable that transfers audio to your ear through bone conduction (you put your finger on your ear).

The most interesting category of A.I. wearables will be smart glasses. While a smattering of minor products now exists in the category, the real beginning of the virtual assistant smart glasses era will begin with Amazon smart glasses, which are imminent, according to an article in the Financial Times.

And as I’ve discussed here in the past, augmented-reality smart glasses from the likes of Apple will offer virtual assistant access all the time they’re worn.

Over the next few years, these products will be joined by hundreds of wearables that give instant access to the virtual assistants of our choice.

In the enterprise, A.I. wearables will enhance mobile applications powerfully. They’ll also provide security.

New research from the University of Michigan has demonstrated that special-purpose wearables can “eliminate vulnerabilities in voice authentication.” The researchers’ VAuth technology combines voice audio with vibrations on the body to create a unique “signature” that verifies identity.

Secure voice ID means natural voice interaction with a virtual assistant will enable simple talking to replace keys, keycards, signatures and other forms of ID or access.

The conclusion is inescapable: The popularity of smart speakers, the increasing use of voice over text, the improving quality of virtual assistants, the growth of A.I. wearables and the demonstrated ability of voice to provide secure ID mean that all trendlines converge in a future where virtual assistants are the “killer app” for wearables, and wearables are the “killer apps” for virtual assistants.

The basic scenario will be that each user will pick the virtual assistant he or she likes best. When at home or the office (or the car), you’ll use a smart speaker.

While out and about, you’ll have your choice from many A.I.-powered earbuds, smart glasses and other wearables, all delivering the same virtual assistant.

Star Trek got it right. We’ll talk to our computers. Everywhere. All the time.

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