GEICO, the diversified insurance company owned by Berkshire Hathaway, has teamed with Nuance Communications to offer its own mobile, personal virtual assistant (PVA) branded as Lily. The company hasn’t made the sort of marketing splash that it made when it introduced its mobile app with a media blitz starring Maxwell the Pig yelling “wee wee wee” in the backseat of a family station wagon, but that is because management feels like it doesn’t have to; if they do it well, mobile customers will naturally use it.
In a press release issued when the app was updated in the Apple App Store, GEICO cited the fact that, even prior to the formal introduction of a conversational element to the service, 40% (“two out of five”) of the people with the app “use voice technology on their mobile devices today.”
GEICO’s experience is not an aberration. A survey conducted by OnlineDegress.com about a year ago showed that nearly 9 out of ten iPhone 4s owners used Siri at least once a month. More than one out of four used it daily to check email. Only 35% said that they would never use Siri. In short, they were on a mission of discovery and, for something like 40% of users had found the Siri-enabled functions that they were ready to use regularly. More importantly, more than half of the respondents said that having a Siri-like feature would be “critical” in terms of choosing their next smartphone.
Speech Skeptics are bound to express doubts about wanting to talk to a machine while seeking roadside assistance. Their hesitation is based on bad past experience with earlier speech recognition systems, perhaps in noisy environments. Critics also tend to treat “virtual assistants” as the ugly stepchildren of speech enabled “personae” – meaning machines programmed to have a certain “attitude” that many users found grating or annoying.
Indeed, the claim from Pete Meoli, GEICO’s director of mobile and digital design, that Lily would have “a lively personality to allow our mobile customers to connect with her at a deeper level” will give some prospective users a cause for pause. But that’s not the point. Lily – as the natural interface to the GEICO mobile app – will have the ability to support interactions at a “deeper level.” She’ll be location aware, she’ll have account history at her fingertips and, on top of all that, she’ll benefit form fairly accurate speech recognition and a corpus of candidates for “next best action” distilled from voluminous amounts of GEICO’s historical interactions.
As often as I’ve called my automobile insurance provider and spent the obligatory 5 minutes making selections from a series of voice menus, or sitting on hold waiting to talk to the one person who specializes in my particularly problem, I know that interacting with an cool, calm, collected automated assistant would be a welcome, positive change. It just takes some getting used to.
The market for voice biometrics-based solutions has matured significantly in the past year. In this document Opus Research compares the products and strategic position of a select group of solution providers and presents structured analysis that should benefit decision makers planning to introduce speaker verification in their contact centers or on mobile devices or networks.
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Back in December, we noted that an SF-based start-up called Expect Labs was working with Nuance Communications (and others) to deliver a showcase iPad application called MindMeld. The demo was an impressive display of what the company calls “Anticipatory Computing.” Like Google Now, it is the product of constant monitoring and analysis of human input (words, gestures, location…) for the purpose of delivering relevant items (search results) from a set of defined sources on the Internet or World Wide Web. In the case of MindMeld, for example, if two people start talking about “happy hour” near the end of work day, the app may display specials and offer suggested watering holes based on local information from Yelp! or other local search sources.
That’s the low-hanging fruit. It was enough to garner a reported $2.4 million in seed financing from Google, Greylock, Bessemer, IDG Ventures, KPG Ventures and Quest Venture Partners. This week, Expect Labs added three new investors whose contributions “more than equaled” the previous investment. More importantly, it signals great future expectations in three distinct opportunity areas. Device manufacturer Samsung has never been shy about adding new features and functions that define the “natural user interface.” With its competitive sights set squarely on defeating Apple’s iOS-based devices in the marketplace, Samsung is motivated to continually differentiate. Spoken words, gestures, touch and other signals of user intent must be taken into account. Expect Labs’ core technologies will be expected to make the most of matching all that input with relevant responses.
For Intel, the value of what Expect Labs should be equally obvious. Making sense out of voluminous amounts of diverse inputs will be extremely computing-intensive. Expect Labs is creating products and services that showcase the power of what Intel calls Perceptual Computing, which is Intel’s term for technologies designed to render the mouse unnecessary by replacing it with more natural user interfaces, including speech, gestures and touch. Intel has issued a software development kit (SDK) to encourage creative input from app developers around the world. All the different modalities of input represent more grist or other raw material for Expect Labs’ core technology platform, the Anticipation Engine.
The participation of Telefonica Digital represents a wise investment by a very forward-looking, global telephone company. Parent company, Telefonica, is the seventh diversified telecommunications company and the fifth largeset wireless carrier. Telefonica Digital was formed last year as a global business unit focused growing a diverse set of digital assets through R&D, acquisition or partnerships. It has identified cloud computing, mobile advertising, M2M and eHealth as focus areas, but management well understands that fostering and delivering applications and services that leverage “Big Data” and “Cloud Computing” to serve over 315 million customers will be its growth engine. Expect Labs’ Anticipation Engine, residing in Telefonica Digital’s cloud and hoovering up user input and scads of real-time data suits Telefonica’s requirements very nicely.
There is a lot of fertile ground where Perceptual Computing meets Anticipatory Engines. The resulting products and services will define one of the families of Virtual Personal Assistants (VPAs) that are destined to redefine mobile search and ecommerce. Results from the Anticipation Engine already have many similarities to the latest features of Google Now, which uses a form of Anticipatory Computing to provide relevant information to support daily planning (like weather, travel plans, traffic conditions and other factors like restaurant reservations or movie show times). Solutions developers are making great strides in figuring out when, where and how it is reasonable to expect this type of automated system to be of assistance to individuals. It is a long-term learning process by both humans and machines.
Today’s customer authentication methods are from another age. Opus Research interviewed security and customer care professionals in Global 100 companies to learn about their perception and attitudes toward passive authentication of customers using voice. Respondents provided insights into the value of multi-factor authentication and provided “key success factors” for implementing strong, context-aware authentication without burdening customers with passwords or answers to challenge questions.
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[Updated April 30] On April 23rd U.S. Bank, the 5th largest commercial bank in the United States, reported that it is piloting a branded version of Nuance Communications’ Nina(TM) Mobile to support a speech-enabled mobile virtual assistant. A branded version of Nina will enable customers who have been issued the U.S. Bank FlexPerks® Travel Rewards Visa Signature® to view account balances, search transactions and make payments on their accounts by using “natural language” to provide instructions will in the FlexPerks mobile app.
U.S. Bank operates 3,080 banking offices in 25 states, as well as a network of 5,056 ATMs. It has been an early adopter of several advanced payment features, including trials of near field communications (NFC) in some trial cities. It was also one of the first North American banks to offer credit cards with the Europay-MasterCard-Visa (EMV) chip installed, enabling travelers to use their cards easily in EMV countries. The bank does not provide a count of its FlexPerks cardholders. In 2009, when Northwest Airlines and Delta Airlines merged, Suzanne Ziegler, a reporter for the Minneapolis The Star-Tribune claimed that they served an estimated 1 million to four million cardholders.
At a meeting it held for Industry Analysts last week, Cisco’s Unified Customer Collaboration business unit showed how the growth of IP-based, Unified Communications (UC) software and infrastructure is fueling demand for new features, functions, software and capabilities in the contact center. Through a series of briefings by customers, channel partners and Cisco’s own executives – including Robert Lloyd, President of Development and Sales – Cisco made it clear that it considers contact center infrastructure to be the focal point for “The Internet of Everything,” a term that Cisco has coined to describe a $14.4 trillion market comprised of technologies that are “bringing together people, process, data, and things to make networked connections more relevant and valuable than ever before.”
This is a “Back to the Future” moment for contact center-based resources. The centrality, not to mention the very existence of contact centers has been called into question during the past decade as corporate spending gravitated toward e-commerce Web sites and mobile apps in recognition that each “customer’s journey” starts with a generic “Google search,” then lands on an enterprise’s Web site where a transaction may be consummated or deflected to a local retail store. Mobile devices, especially smartphones equipped with Web-browsers or e-commerce apps, have also taken their toll on traffic to and from contact centers. Thus IT execs were well-counseled to invest in UC servers, networking, middleware and software which, in turn, became the underpinning for presence-awareness, collaboration, multichannel and mobile communications throughout the company.
As investment gravitated toward UC, IT managers and other decisionmakers seem to have forgotten that “back in the day” (meaning the 1960s) voice and data first converged at a single point smack in the middle of an agent’s workstation. This precursor to UC enabled agents to carry out a voice conversation with a customer or prospect while simultaneously viewing pertinent information about the caller and the purpose of the call. Automated Call Directors (ACDs) and then electronic programmable branch exchanges (ePBXs) routed voice calls to agents, while ancillary computers, data switches and routers directed data traffic as required by the call center application. By the 1980s, these locked-down, rock solid systems validated the idea that voice and data could reside together at large scale, with high reliability (“five 9′s” meaning 99.999% uptime) and in real-time.
By the mid-1990s, the Internet and World Wide Web disrupted the patterns of everyday commerce in ways that are irreversible. The contact center managers who paid dearly for the daily care and feeding of contact center infrastructure were told to invest only in technologies that could continually control costs, while promoting ever-higher levels of agent productivity without sacrificing customer satisfaction. The contact center was an important termination point for inbound calls (especially in the wake of anti-telemarketing legislation and regulations). It’s efficiency was measured by cost control and closure. It had become an island and a fortress.
The Internet abhors islands and takes pleasure in smashing silos. Long ago, Cisco began to offer both its Customer Voice Portal (CVP) and its Unified Contact Center (UCC) platforms as components of its Unified Customer Collaboration suite. What’s more, as demonstrated by speakers from customers like Allianz Global Assistance and resellers like Presidio Networked Solutions, we’re witnessing “contact centers without borders.” Rather than serving as a termination point for inbound calls for support, it is a point of ingress and egress for communications of all kinds (voice, clickstreams, text, data) transpiring between and among other people, people and machines (like IVRs and Web servers), and machine-to-machine (E.g. the use of data about callers and their activity to support “precision routing” of calls, tweets, Facebook posts and the like). Agents can be anywhere. Supervisors can monitor them from their smartphones. Executives throughout the enterprise can be brought into a customer workflow to resolve an issue.
Whether you refer to it as the “Internet of Things” or the “Internet of Everything,” its adoption and growth is poised to bring new life and greater levels of activity to the contact center.
A new generation of voice biometrics is being deployed in call centers. Technological advancements now enable “passive” authentication with high levels of accuracy, which overcomes historical challenges to customer adoption of voice authentication.
Participants in this free webinar learn about the new approach to caller authentication and fraud detection, and hear how major financial institutions are implementing passive voice biometrics in the call center.
What you’ll learn:
- A primer on “passive voice biometrics” highlighting enrollment & verification
- Underlying new technologies: Passive operation, dual screening, multi-factor analysis
- Real-world field implementations showing business results and performance metrics
Who should attend:
- Executives and managers in customer care and call centers who want to know alternatives for strong, convenient user authentication
- Experts in information security and access control
- Fraud and risk management specialists
- Vipul Vyas, VP of Client Development – Victrio
- Joe Schmid, VP, Product Management of Authentication Solutions – Victrio
- Derek Top, Editorial Director – Opus Research
Wednesday, April 24, 2013 — 2 p.m. EST / 11 a.m. PST
Register at BrightTalk or Sign Up Below to join the Webcast
By popular demand, Opus Research will convene a roundtable of panelists from Vanguard, Union Bank and Bank of the West at the upcoming Voice Biometrics Conference-San Francisco (May 8-9). Banks and financial services providers have been among the first to evaluate, pilot and implement voice biometrics-based authentication systems for both internal and customer-facing resources.
The panelists will share their viewpoints based on years of experience balancing security considerations with issues surrounding customer experience, employee education, technological compatibilities and return on investment.
The list of panelists include: Ken Palla, Vice President of Union Bank; David Pollino, Fraud Prevention Officer from Bank of the West; and Advait Deshpande, Sr. Manager of Client Services at Vanguard Securities. Collectively, they have decades of experience and represent a 360-degree view of the challenges and opportunities that voice biometrics-based technologies present to the financial services community.
Additionally, PayPal chief information security officer Michael Barrett, a respected security industry executive and well-known for his ground-breaking work in identity management, will present an opening keynote at VBC San Francisco (#VBCSF), highlighting a need for stronger authentication for electronic commerce and mobile banking . Barrett is also the current president for the FIDO Alliance — a consortium of e-commerce technology and service providers promoting a standards-based, open protocol for online authentication. Following’s Barrett’s presentation, representatives from Google, Agnitio, Validity and Nok Nok Labs will participate in interactive panel discussion on how new technologies, including voice biometrics, represent current alternatives to passwords.
The conference features a roster of 30 speakers from around the world. They are prepared to describe the potential for voice biometrics to enhance the quality of customer experience and security for telecommunications, healthcare, government services and mobile commerce, in addition to financial services.
Sponsors for VBC San Francisco include: Nuance, NICE Systems, IBM, VoiceVault, Voxeo, Agnitio, Sestek, SpeechPro, VoiceTrust, Sensory, Inc., TRUSTID, Pindrop Security and Victrio.
Mike Butcher at TechCrunch is reporting that Amazon appears to have bought mobile virtual assistant developer EVI (formerly TrueKnowledge) for $26 million. Butcher was unable to confirm the story through either Amazon or Evi spokespeople, but, as we discovered in our long-standing coverage of Amazon’s acquisitions in the speech processing domain, stony silence is the order of the day. In November 2011, the Web’s largest retailer and cloud services provider very quietly acquired Yap, which had been offering highly-accurate speech recognition and transcription. In January of this year (2013) it expanded its automated speech processing chops by purchasing text-to-speech specialist Ivona, which had built its reputation by providing highly-human sounding renderings of long-form text.
While TechCrunch’s Butcher speculates that the next step for Amazon, given its serial acquisitions, would be a telephone. My own belief is that it is poised to make all its browser-based, e-commerce assets more conversational. I believe the most common use case would be a more natural interface for the Kindle, whether it’s thought of as a mobile device or a mobile application running on iOS or Android. The idea would be to provide a consistent, highly personalized user interface across all potential access points. Thus a “talking Kindle” (or Conversational Kindle) would be the entry point for everything that Amazon has to offer. That includes video entertainment, books and the wide variety of goods and services offered through Amazon Prime, the Kindle Store or any of the online merchants supported by Amazon.com. Offering a Kindle phone makes less sense to me, but the option of supporting person-to-person communications (phone conversations, conference calls or video conferencing) is not out of the question.
UK-based EVI was conceived as a company called TrueKnowledge in 2007 and built its original intellectual property and productization efforts were based in becoming “The Internet Answer Engine.” This involved building a knowledge base of structured “facts” which could be used to respond to user queries. It later launched EVI as a speech-enabled counterpart to Siri. When Opus Research tested the service a couple of years ago, we found recognition of our spoken words were often misunderstood, but performance issues of this nature often improve over time, as the company builds a better corpus of user utterances.
Integration with Amazon could give EVI a performance boost as Yap’s recognition engine and Ivona’s text-to-speech rendering are brought online. Positioning EVI as a speech enabled personal assistant to Amazon.com will enable designer, developers to have a better sense of the context of a query. That is to say, knowing that a visitor is browsing for books automatically limits the range of responses that Amazon needs to provide. Ditto for searching and selecting filmed entertainment or other product categories.
When it comes to cloud-based commerce and communications, Amazon is in the category with Google, Apple and Microsoft. So far, only Apple has made the bold move into develop and market a speech-enabled mobile virtual assistant, the archetypal Siri. As I learned at Bill Meisel’s Mobile Voice Conference earlier this week, Google puts more emphasis on making “voice” an option for everything that it does, without developing a “virtual assistant” a la Apple’s Siri or Angel’s Lexee. Microsoft’s emphasis, since it spun off Tellme to 7 is on a “natural interface” for Web-based resources including spoken words and gestures – with less emphasis on human-like interactions. Among them, Amazon is a leader in creating a highly personalized shopping experience, with knowledge of a buyer’s past history, one of the longest-standing “recommendation engines,” and even formal support of each member’s “Wish List.” Imagine Apple’s Siri having the benefit of an individual volunteering information about what they are looking for in advance.
Making a smartphone, to compete with Apple’s iPhone or the broad variety of Android devices, would not play to Amazon’s strengths. Building a speech-enabled, virtual personal assistant is highly-personalized and responsive to each user’s intent is a different matter altogether.