From Novelty, to Productivity, to Commerce, Voice Has Come a Long Way Asia poised to drive the next biggest market growth in voice tech

By Kim Co Lim

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When Siri was launched by Apple in 2011, the innovation was met with awe but treated as a novelty largely. A CNN story even wrote how the public saw it as "sinister", with many freaking out at the thought a mobile's own program can take calls and reserve dinners on behalf of the mobile user just by hearing a human voice. And yet in February, UK-based Juniper Research revealed in a survey that there are now 2.5 billion voice assistants available in the market globally. And that's a number projected to more than triple in the next five years.

Indeed, voice-enabled assistants have come a long way since Apple planted the idea in the public's mind that someday, things could truly be easier said than done (on one's own). Today, voice assistants are no longer exclusively found on phones, they are on smart TVs, in car operating systems, even spurring gadgets dedicated solely just for them. Amazon has sold over 100 million Alexa devices since its launch.

While initially met with hesitation, the market eventually learned to warm up to the voice assistants' selling proposition. After all, they are available 24/7, can be triggered hands-free, and will most likely know the best answer to that consumer query next to Google's search engine.

Uptake may be slower than other artificial intelligence-operated technologies like chatbots, but it's still generally experiencing an upswing. In fact, the entire voice industry will hit $40 billion in value by 2022. Aside from the US, the next biggest market to drive that growth is Asia.

Serving the world's fastest-growing region

A young, vibrant and tech and mobile-savvy market, Asia is the next best match for the innovative products of the industry given Asians' high propensity to adopt technologies, especially productivity apps that can solve many day to day challenges and make life easier in the emerging markets. In fact, according to the latest Global Web Index, the biggest market for voice tech are Indonesia and China given their populations' strong relationship with mobile.

Aware of this potential, Google even launched an affordable feature phone in Indonesia last year, which is pre-installed with a voice-activated assistant, allowing users to book rides or read the news on their behalf. "WizPhone is the first feature phone made by Indonesians that will have the Google Assistant built in and it will retail at less than $10," Randy Jusuf, Google Indonesia managing director, wrote in a blog post.

Indonesia and China are home to the Super Apps - productivity, commerce, news, information and networking services all in one dependable app that powers society. One can imagine how voice-powered service can be such a relief to folks weary from mobile screen time.

Over the years, voice assistants have also developed new skills, doing more than just simply accomplish the individual demands of a consumer. At the backend, voice-operated technologies have enabled businesses and even governments to streamline their processes to simplify operations and deliver better services themselves.

In 2014, in what may be the first wide-scale adoption of a chatbot service in Southeast Asia, Singapore's government launched a chatbot service on several government sites, allowing citizens to ask simple questions to a bot instead. Named "Ask Jamie", the service was developed after the government learned over 50 percent of citizen inquiries to agencies are general questions about public services. While initially launched as a chatbot service, a new iteration of Ask Jamie that takes voice calls is now being deployed in some of Singapore's agencies.

"We now have Ask Jamie Voice, where the virtual assistant answers calls directly, using voice recognition to convert speech to text [which is then processed]," Lorraine Ong, executive manager at the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech), the agency in charge of Ask Jamie, said in a story published on its site. "As technology continues to improve, we want Ask Jamie to evolve to become more functional and helpful," Zhuo Shaowei, another manager in the agency, added.

And now, money talks

Another industry set to be transformed and become more impactful with voice technology is financial services. Imagine if money matters could be discussed and resolved as quickly as calling a friend on the phone. The United Bank of India knew the value in this proposition, so it tapped Financial Software and Systems (FSS), a long-established digital payment service, to launch a voice banking platform that its customers could tap initially for basic inquiries. It's similarly the fintech firm's first foray to voice commerce after more than two decades of servicing public and private entities with security and system solutions.

At present, the platform FSS developed for the United Bank of India could let the latter's account holders inquire about balances or reset account passwords. Eventually, though, the company sees fund transfers to be enabled by the service too.

"Money talks in quite a literal sense now," said `Ram Chari, FSS Global Business Head in a story published on its site. "For our partner banks, the voice opportunity lies in new market opportunities, achieving digital operational excellence, and deepening customer engagement."

The impact of voice as part of digital first strategy for banks can be immense; from ease and convenience to trust and security.

In Southeast Asia where many have never benefited from formal financial services, and are therefore prey to money sharks, voice can be a financial inclusion breakthrough to bring more people, even the illiterate, to participate and be served in the banking sector.

Voice technology may not be as ubiquitous in this side of the world yet, especially when voice-enabled gadgets haven't reached mainstream. But these developments are showing not only how they can prove to be helpful in our everyday lives in the future; but how such novelty, represent genuine innovations that can bridge the great divide.

Kim Co Lim

CEO-founder, TripZeeker


Kim Co Lim is the CEO and founder of travel platform TripZeeker, which is headquartered out of the Philippines and active across Asia. The platform uses bleeding edge technologies to match travellers with the best destinations and experiences.

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