From smartphones to smart homes, sound and voice interactions are driving our experiences with tech
From the calming harmonies of the Mac startup sound, to the bubbly anticipation of the Skype call melody, and the bright and optimistic chime of a Tinder match, technology companies integrate sounds into their products and experiences that are both functional and strategically branded.
As the technology sector works toward greater interconnectivity between data, communications, and content streams, the range of potential UX and brand touchpoints woven throughout our daily interactions expands considerably. Brands are recognizing the profound role that sound plays in serving functional needs, supporting users with voice technology and audio cues that are reassuring and satisfying, but also in keeping the brand top of mind by using distinct and memorable sounds that flow consistently through a consumer’s experience with the products.
Sound branding isn’t new to the tech industry. Intel, a B2B microprocessor supplier to brands such as Dell, HP, and Apple, built considerable consumer brand equity over two decades through the persistent use of a sound logo tagged onto the end of countless computer ads. That sound confidently signals to consumers when a product has Intel’s tech inside, resonating as a mnemonic device synonymous with reliability and integrity. Microsoft famously turned to legendary electronic musician Brian Eno to create the startup sound for Windows 95 — the ethereal six-second chime became one of the most often heard and, as a result, recognizable sounds in the world, designed to convey optimism and inspiration within a very short timeframe. These examples from the beginning of the dot-com era demonstrated that tech companies were taking design aesthetics and branding more seriously in an increasingly competitive and discerning marketplace, and that sound could play a critical role in shaping brand perception and user experience.
Today, technological advances and deep investment in virtual and augmented reality have opened up massive potential for sound. With low-cost VR headsets from Samsung, Oculus, HTC and others entering the market, consumers can readily access immersive games and content online, on smartphones or video game consoles. To create believable interactive environments in VR, sound is an incredibly powerful tool for shaping our perception of space. Sound designers are using videogame engines like Unity to build three-dimensional, spatialized audio that responds to a user’s movements, helping to guide and enliven the immersive experience.
Sound’s impact within the technology sector has only accelerated with the recent emergence of voice technology. Investment in voice by the top US tech companies has been the key driving force in consumer adoption, with Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook all introducing voice assistants and smart speakers since 2011. Amazon currently dominates the smart speaker market with 70% of US smart speaker owners using Amazon Echo devices. (6) But due to Apple and Google's integration of voice assistants in over a half billion smartphones, desktops, laptops, and wearable devices each, (7 & 8) the global use of Siri and Google Assistant far outpaces Amazon Alexa. (9)
So, while the majority of voice AI assistant use occurs on mobile devices with Siri and Google Assistant, Amazon has been able to make greater inroads in the home with the growth of connected IoT devices. Through the integration of Amazon Alexa skills with IoT devices such as thermostats, security systems, lighting, televisions and other smart appliances, the connected home is becoming a reality.
The real opportunity is in how smart devices might begin to connect our home, vehicle, and work environment into a seamless flow. It’s predicted that by 2022, there will be 870 million voice-enabled devices in the US, with smart televisions being the fastest growing device. (12) Over 23% of smart speaker owners use them to control other smart devices every day, (13) and in 2020, all Samsung and LG appliances will be compatible with Internet of Things (IoT) technology. (14) Kenmore, Bosch, and GE among others also offer a wide range of smart appliances that connect to Amazon Echo and Google Home devices. (15)
“One of the most exciting things to witness about voice assistants is it’s incredibly easy to adopt. Voice is also universal on a global scale. In places where people are coming online for the first time, voice is taking the forefront as the primary way they interact with their devices.” — Scott Huffman, VP, Engineering, Google Assistant (16)
Zooming out from smart speakers and IoT devices, the current growth and future potential of responsive, connected smart technology is being driven by advances across a range of territories, including AI, cloud computing, and 5G wireless technology. While these parallel developments present critical challenges to protecting consumers’ data security and privacy, ethical and equitable development point toward more frictionless and intuitive user experiences, enabling hands-free, heads-up interactions where the physical footprint and visual displays of our devices fade into the background. Within this broader transformation, voice-enabled user control and audio confirmation drive our interactions with technology.
Written by Paul Amitai, Executive Strategy Director
Published June 2020
(1) Bayern, Macy, “Rise of multicloud: 58% of businesses using combination of AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud,” TechRepublic (Jan 24, 2019).
(2) "Voice Report," Microsoft, 2019.
(3) "Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2019-2023," PwC, 2019.
(4) "Voice Report," Microsoft, 2019.
(5) Sterling, Greg, “Alexa devices maintain 70% market share in U.S. according to survey,” Marketing Land (Aug 9 2019).
(6) He, Amy, “Amazon Maintains Convincing Lead in US Smart Speaker Market,” eMarketer (Feb 10, 2020).
(7) Kinsella, Bret, “Apple Siri Devices Total 500 Million. This is Not Users. But Still,” Voicebot (Jan 24, 2018).
(8) Eadicicco, Lisa, “Google just revealed that half a billion people around the world are using the Google Assistant as it battles with Amazon to conquer the smart home,” Business Insider (Jan 7, 2020).
(9) "Voice Report," Microsoft, 2019.
(10 & 11) "The Digital Assistants of Tomorrow," Juniper Research, 2019.
(12) “Alexa, Say What?! Voice-Enabled Speaker Usage to Grow Nearly 130% This Year,” eMarketer, 2017.
(13) Kinsella, Bret, “Smart Speaker Owners Agree That Questions, Music, and Weather are Killer Apps. What Comes Next?,” Voicebot (Mar 12, 2019).
(14) "Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2019-2023," PwC, 2019.
(15) "How Big Tech Is Battling To Own The $49B Voice Market," CB Insights (Feb 13, 2019).
(16) Huffman, Scott, “Five insights on voice technology,” Google (Aug 21, 2018).
(17) "Prepare for the voice revolution: The impact of voice assistants on consumer behavior," PwC, 2019.
(18) Voice Report, Microsoft, 2019.
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