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MWC: Conversational UI Could Spark Big Changes, Eventually

At MWC this year, conversational UI didn’t receive as much attention as 5G, but its transformative power within 10 years could be vast.

Brian Buntz

March 4, 2019

6 Min Read
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Walking the halls of MWC this year, it was clear that 5G and edge computing are two of the hottest buzzwords of the year. But a more subtle theme was that radical changes in how people interact with technology are already underfoot, although the implications of those shifts could take years to notice.

In a decade’s time, it is likely that the lion’s share of the populace won’t use traditional desktop computers, predicted Leyla Seka, executive vice president of mobile at Salesforce. And keyboards could fade to the periphery. “Hardcore coders would probably still want them because they don’t want their hands to crumple up,” Seka said. But conversational user interfaces are poised to gain in popularity — for both consumer and enterprise applications.

While Gartner revealed last year in its CIO survey. that only 4 percent of enterprise companies have conversational UI in production, 38 percent are planning to use such interfaces in the future.

Augmented reality, and its cousin mixed reality, were also stars of MWC with Microsoft’s Hololens 2 emerging as one of the most buzzed-about technologies of the year. By digitally extending a users’ senses — either with a dedicated AR device such as the Hololens or an ordinary mobile device running an AR application, users can receive contextual and actionable information about the physical world.

But for many simple business operations, conversational UI based on smartphones, smart speakers or elsewhere — will enable a growing number of users in the next decade to give auditory commands to update information and meeting times and perform many business operations, Seka believes. And such virtual assistants will become steadily more intelligent, enabling them to reduce the need for many research web queries over time. “Imagine when we are able to do mobile analysis across an organization so that you’re getting a sense of productivity and when you need to change a process or need a different kind of approval,” Seka said. “I imagine they’ll be insights there that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Dreamforce — along with prominent companies such as Amazon, Google and Samsung — is aggressively investing in conversational user interfaces. “We launched Einstein Voice last year at [Salesforce’s] Dreamforce [event],” Seka said. “It’s really still in pilot right now. We’ll take it out full throttle to the whole base as we roll into the end of the year.”

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But voice is really compelling. You’re basically talking and the system is not only just dictating what you say, but it’s actually able to bring back analysis.

While the average amount of time most people spend staring at screens has steadily increased over the years to approximately 24 hours per week, a decrease could be around the corner. One of the most popular New York Times articles at the moment is titled “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.”

There is, perhaps, an increasing agreement that screen-based interfaces are a means to an end. As Donald Norman, director of The Design Lab at University of California, San Diego said in 1990: “I don’t want to think of myself as using a computer, I want to think of myself as doing my job.”

“Our interaction with [smartphones] is going to shift dramatically,” Seka said. “Already, proactive notifications have already started coming to the phone. Things like Screen Time are telling you what your patterns are.”

While the voice-based interface is still a nascent technology, adoption is picking up in the consumer realm, thanks in large part to the now-mainstream status of virtual assistants such as Amazon Alexa and its Google counterpart.

And organizations like Marriott are working with Amazon and Salesforce to test the potential of smart speakers and other IoT technologies in the hospitality sector. Seka, who has tested out the technology, recounts how she visited a Marriott hotel and it recognized her name, adjusted the thermostat and started playing one of her favorite artists — Bob Dylan — before she entered her room. Once in the room, Alexa could provide an answer to common questions, eliminating the need to call the front desk to, say, ask for extra towels to be brought to the room.

Samsung subsidiary Harman is upbeat on the promise of voice-enabled virtual assistants as well, having worked with the shipping company MSC to develop a bespoke virtual assistant for the MSC Bellissima, a luxury cruise ship. Known as MSC ZOE, the system can answer hundreds of questions in seven languages. Instead of finding a concierge on board or physically walking to a restaurant to make a reservation, a user can simple ask ZOE to perform the task from their room on the ship. ZOE also can interact with the Samsung TVs on board to, say, display the weather to a passenger who asks via a voice command what the day’s weather will be.

Harman also worked with Sprint on the company’s TREBL Magic Box, an LTE signal booster featuring support for Amazon Alexa. Equipped with two 8-Watt Harman Kardon speakers, the new Magic Box won a CES Innovation Award in the Smart Home product category. The device is further evidence for the importance of conversational UI in the smart home.

As IoT technology and voice UI evolve, it is likely they will become increasingly personalized for users who choose to use them. A Salesforce video demonstrates the potential of a customer to stroll into a café, speak the command “the usual” into a smart speaker and receive the answer: “OK, Jane. That’s a large double-shot, no-foam latté, coming right up.” “Or you can walk into a café, and they already are making your drink,” Seka said.

Similar functionality could come to brick-and-mortar retail where a salesperson could walk into a store and get a mobile alert that a return customer is standing nearby. “Imagine if they came over and said: ‘Oh Leyla, last time you came in you bought a white scarf. What are you looking for today? Anything I can help you with?” Seka said. “Although that level of personalization can sometimes make people feel a little wonky. I think that the desire to have it is much greater.”

The paradigm of voice and mobile and IoT-enhanced personalization could represent a new paradigm for user experience. “We’re not quite there yet,” Seka said, “but think about how that will change everything we do in business.”

About the Author(s)

Brian Buntz

Brian is a veteran journalist with more than ten years’ experience covering an array of technologies including the Internet of Things, 3-D printing, and cybersecurity. Before coming to Penton and later Informa, he served as the editor-in-chief of UBM’s Qmed where he overhauled the brand’s news coverage and helped to grow the site’s traffic volume dramatically. He had previously held managing editor roles on the company’s medical device technology publications including European Medical Device Technology (EMDT) and Medical Device & Diagnostics Industry (MD+DI), and had served as editor-in-chief of Medical Product Manufacturing News (MPMN).

At UBM, Brian also worked closely with the company’s events group on speaker selection and direction and played an important role in cementing famed futurist Ray Kurzweil as a keynote speaker at the 2016 Medical Design & Manufacturing West event in Anaheim. An article of his was also prominently on kurzweilai.net, a website dedicated to Kurzweil’s ideas.

Multilingual, Brian has an M.A. degree in German from the University of Oklahoma.

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