Nuance has launched a new version of its virtual assistant Nina(TM) – a service that benefits from the company’s stepped up investment in research and development surrounding Natural Language Processing, with an assist from the acquisition of VirtuOZ in January. Claiming over a thousand speech scientists and natural language specialists operating in a group managed by Distinguished Scientist Ron Kaplan, Nuance has upped the stakes for the handful of companies that are making conversational user interfaces to support self-service and assisted self service across mobile and Web-based interactions. Let’s not forget that the company is also leveraging a long-term cross-licensing agreement with the folks at IBM who brought the world Watson to support “Deep Question Answering,” which is starting to make its presence known among healthcare providers and their patients.
Viewing these activities through the lens of time, you can see that Nuance and IBM anticipated increased public acceptance of speech-enabled Virtual Personal Assistants (VPAs) close to three years ago. And, as this press release regarding anticipated acceptance in the healthcare domain indicates, it is positioned to “go vertical” in response to the fact that, in many instances, customers actually prefer to interact with an automated system that anticipates and understands their needs, requirements and basic intent. As this infographic shows, 80% of the 1,000 physicians surveyed see VPAs having a dramatic effect on healthcare in the next five years.
That said, it is important to note that the new, multi-channel Nina is a horizontal offering. It (she?) is designed to provide a consistent virtual assistant experience, regardless of whether the conversation is held through a speech-enabled IVR or through a Web site and use cases are expected to include mobile phones, where Nuance will add voice biometric authentication to support a highly secure personal virtual assistant. It is also integrating IVR, Web chat and text-based interaction to the existing Nina product. Now, thanks to the integration of VirtuOZ, Nuance is adding human-like interaction through Web sites, placing emphasis on consistently accurate and personal responses.
Today’s announcement includes the introduction of “Nina Agent” – which includes connectivity to enterprise CRM systems, including intelligent routing to live agents when appropriate in the course of a conversation. “Nina IQ Studio” is a “Rapid Design Environment” to enable enterprise personnel or third parties to build and deploy Web-based agents relatively quickly and efficiently. It also marks the introduction of a new Nuance NLU (Natural Language Understanding) Engine, which means that every instantiation will benefit from the system’s ability to “learn” from each interaction and transaction. It is also able to treat information in existing knowledge management systems and CRM systems as raw material for tailoring the conversations with Nina-based agents.
Nuance characterizes the new Nina as the “first complete multi-channel virtual assistant,” meaning it combines the ability to assist with “agent intelligence.” Its all-encompassing approach is a defining moment for the VPA community. Nina started out as an alternative to Apple’s Siri as a virtual assistant for smartphones. In addition to Apple, which is likely to continue to introduce flavors of its assistant to improve search, navigation, media control and e-commerce activities in cars and “connected homes,” you’ll find a number of mobile agents in the wild. Vlingo (which has been purchased by Nuance), Maluuba, SpeakToIt and many others will emerge in this territory. And while it does not claim to be a “virtual assistant,” GoogleNow, when activated through Google Talk offers mobile users a way to use what Angel’s CEO (now a subsidiary of Genesys) Dave Rennyson calls a “sparse dialog model” to take control of search and navigate life’s options through mobile phones. Angel’s Lexee, under the aegis of Genesys, will emerge as an interesting competitor to Nina. Both will be competing for business from the forward-looking companies whose executives recognize that virtual assistants (morphing into virtual advisors) have an important part to play in fulfilling the needs of the growing number of customers who initiate their contact via a mobile browser, text or a call from a smartphone.
Approximately 75% of VirtuOZ customers are also Nuance customers. That should be a good litmus test regarding commitment to supporting high-quality self-service or assisted self-service. We counted over sixteen providers of enterprise-based virtual assistants who, like VirtuOZ were leveraging NLU and knowledge management. NextIT, IntelliResponse, Creative Virtual, Artificial Solutions and a handful of others have made various levels of inroads into customer care Web sites. If front-ending live agents is a priority, both Interactions Inc. and 7 Inc. are staking out their rightful turf in the multi-channel customer care domain.
The introduction of Nina Multichannel transforms virtual assistants into ubiquitous helpers that, like “always on” customers, are everywhere at once. They are on mobile devices, on the Web and inside the contact center. Plus they are well-positioned to help take control of cars, consumer electronics and kitchen devices. For people who have wondered whether the future would bear a greater resemblance to The Jetsons or Star Trek, we’re getting our answers now. The two visions are not mutually exclusive.
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