Voice trends and predictions for 2020 from Project Voice header

It’s safe to say the voice industry kicked off 2020 with a bang. I had the privilege of attending what is one of the biggest events in the voice industry this year – Project Voice. All the who’s who of the industry gathered in Chattanooga, Tennessee (fun fact: it reportedly has the fastest Internet in the world) to present and hear the biggest names of the voice sphere talk about the current and future developments of this exponential revolution. 

It was all orchestrated by the brilliant Bradley Metrock, the executive producer of Project Voice, CEO of Score Publishing, and the host of This Week In Voice podcast. The vibes were superb, and the excitement about witnessing this revolution evolve first-hand was evident on every corner. 

Project Voice - 13 - 17 January in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Not pictured: vibes.

Between numerous workshops, keynotes, discussions, and a few podcast interviews about what we at Trinity Audio are doing, I sat down with some of the biggest voices in voice (get it?) to hear their thoughts and predictions for 2020. Check them out. 

Voice developers and healthcare will be in focus

The event started with the so-called pre-conference workshops, where experts like Kane Simms from VUX World and Vixen Labs, Mark Tucker from soar.com, Roger Kibbe from Viv Labs, and many others took turns covering everything from conversational design to cross-platform voice experiences. I caught up with the mastermind behind the event to hear his take on voice technology in 2020, and here’s what Bradley had to say:

I think that in 2020, we’re going to see a couple of things, at least that I’m watching closely. I’m watching the continued evolution of competition for developer attention amongst the major tech behemoths. Amazon, Google, Samsung, to a lesser extent Microsoft, we’ll see even a little bit of Apple (I think) this year playing in the space – there’s only so many voice developers to go around. There’s only so many companies that understand what exactly they’re dealing with with voice and AI right now. The light’s come on, but it hasn’t fully come on. 

You’ve got these major players competing more and more for the same developers. And this landscape that’s been so peaceful and friendly so far, so noncompetitive like other industries – you just wonder when that’s going to shift. We’ve already seen signs of it (subtle signs so far) so that’s one thing I’m watching carefully. 

Another thing I’m really interested in heading into 2020 is the healthcare vertical specifically. I think that we have already seen that voice has caused evolution to take place in different verticals. 

Bradley moderating a panel ‘VC Investment in Voice’.
Bradley moderating a panel ‘VC Investment in Voice’. 

We’ve seen successful experimentation and successful implementation in banking and finance. We’ve seen it in hospitality with resorts, and travel and hotels (and restaurants). We’ve seen it in publishing. We’ve seen it in automotive but the one that I’m really watching is healthcare because there’s so much to be gained. With Amazon’s leadership in 2019 – causing Alexa to be HIPAA compliant, prioritizing that and showing that’s important – that’s caused the whole healthcare sector to understand and accelerate the process of getting ramped up with how voice can be involved in their operations, as well as in some cases, their marketing. 

Those are two areas right off the top of my head that I’m watching in 2020. 

Voice as the next OS

The topic of healthcare seamlessly transitioned with my next “victim” – Teri Fisher, founder of Alexa in Canada, TEDx and keynote speaker, and an educator – just some of his credentials. Teri is arguably the foremost expert when it comes to voice-first healthcare, and here’s how he sees voice developing in 2020:

At a very (sort of) basic level, I think and more and more people are gonna’ start to realize that it’s the new operating system. As we’ve gone from way back: MS-DOS, which was just an operating system with typing to a graphical user interface with Windows to touch screen to mobile, and then to the most seamless operating system which is going to be voice. 

A big percentage of homes have access to a smart speaker right now in the US. A lot of people have access to it, and more people are talking to computers, talking to their voice assistants, and voice is going to become the next operating system. It’s innate, that’s how we talk. It’s efficient, it’s the quickest way to communicate, you can multitask… 

The thing that I have started to realize, as I started to think about this, is that there are different ways of communicating. There is nonverbal communication, which is just like reading each other’s facial expressions, that sort of thing. There is written communication – you have to read it. 

Teri speaking at his ‘Best Practices with Flash Briefings’ session
Teri speaking at his ‘Best Practices with Flash Briefings’ session

When you compare that to verbal communication – voice – it’s the only form of communication where you don’t actually have to be looking at or focusing your attention on something. Nonverbal communication – I’d be looking at your face. Written communication – obviously have to be looking at a written word. Verbal communication or voice technology – I can be doing anything and I can still use the technology. It’s extremely authentic and contextual because you can hear the emotion in my voice.

I just think that voice is actually becoming the next operating system. We’re going to be seeing people leverage that technology with all the new technologies. Like, Trinity Audio being built on voice as the operating system –  I think that’s where we’re going.

Back to the smartphone but wiser

You can’t have a list of voice-related opinions without Bret Kinsella, editor and publisher at Voicebot.ai. For many (yours truly included), it’s the central source of information on voice and AI with numerous industry data, research, and analysis. Prior to his roast (which should say more than enough about how important this man is), I caught up with Bret to get his take on the matter at hand:

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My prediction for 2020 is that we will focus much more on the phone and mobile apps over the next year. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of mobile apps this year that are going to roll out with voice navigation or voice assistant functionality but I do think there’ll be movement in that direction. A lot of people will plan for it, some of them will start with some PoC’s so that we’re going to see by 2021 an onslaught of mobile apps that used to be touch and swipe only, that will now be voice first.

On that note, Scot Westwater, co-founder and CEO at Pragmatic Digital and co-author of ‘Voice Strategy: Creating Useful and Usable Voice Experiences’ with his equally voice-versed wife Susan had a similar notion: 

2020 will be the year that voice grows up. I really do see us maturing as an industry. And I do think we’re going to spend a lot more time considering user needs and business objectives to create useful and usable experiences. While the technology side is great, if we don’t have strong strategic imperatives behind what we’re creating – a lot of times is going to fall flat. So my prediction for this year is we’re really going to embrace user needs and business objectives to create skills. 

Personalization is the name of the game

Next up was Carl Robinson, the host of the Voice Tech Podcast. His podcast is a vast resource of information that gives more of a behind-the-scenes take at voice technology. Having a master’s degree in data science and machine learning, it was almost implied Carl’s answer to my question was going to go deep into the technology itself. Here’s what I mean by that:

Where do I think this industry is going? Well, I think it’s going places, that’s for sure. 

My predictions for 2020? The first would be biometric authentication and emotion recognition. I think these are going to be huge, seeing more and more companies in the space. It’s going to allow us to basically use any smart speaker in the world, which for me is really exciting. At the moment, you have to log into every single one to access personalized services. Once we’ve got biometric authentication, that’s going to be huge because we can literally walk up to any microphone in the world and just use it as if it was our own. The emotion recognition is going to help personalize that, give us more relevant responses, etc. So that for me is one of the most exciting things, with companies like ID R&D and many others in the space working hard on that problem. 

The next one will be obviously hearables, wearables – anything that’s mobile. I think that’s gonna be a massive catalyst for greater usage. Obviously, we’re not always set in front of the smart speaker. If you can use it on the go – like we do with our smartphones – it’s going to massively increase the use of voice. It’s going to increase the variety of use cases. It’s hands-free so it means we can bring up our heads, start looking each other in the eyes again. Phones zombies may even start to disappear as I’ve been saying a lot recently!

Carl Robinson interviewing Trinity Audio’s CEO Ron Jaworski and me for his podcast. Not pictured: Ron Jaworski
Carl interviewing Trinity Audio’s CEO Ron Jaworski and me for his podcast. Not pictured: Ron Jaworski

And the last one will be interactive content. That includes interactive ads like Instreamatic and Trinity Audio are doing, interactive stories, interactive podcasts (something I haven’t seen but I hope to see that soon)… All of these things that allow us to get more involved in the content, to request personalization, to make it more engaging – that for me is wonderful as well so I’m really looking forward to seeing that in 2020. 

2020 is the year voice gets serious

I also managed to get a quick few words with Amy Summers, President of Pitch Publicity and the voice behind the hit flash briefing ‘The Pitch with Amy Summers’. Before her talk on using flash briefings to develop a relationship, she had this to say:

My prediction for 2020 in voice is that more people will get comfortable talking to their smart speakers, and that we will get them on board with listening more than reading. 

It’s as if she read my mind. On the other hand, James Poulter, CEO and co-founder of Vixen Labs and one of the program directors for this year’s VOICE Summit, shared a more cautious opinion on where the voice industry is heading:

I suppose where I see the industry going in 2020 is that this is really the opportunity year for us to solidify the voice industry moving from being a place of experimentation to a place of business as usual; that this isn’t a thing that is just a plaything on the fringes of the technology industry right now. 

Project Voice January 13-17
I was really early at times – side effects of jet lag, I guess. 

This is essentially becoming the new interface for consuming the Internet. That means it’s the place where you’re going to consume your news, consume your content, place you’re going to get business done and the way you’re going to reach your consumers. I think this year is a real opportunity for the industry to bed itself down and for the big players to really make some headway in getting mainstream businesses into the industry in a much more cemented fashion rather than just playing at the edges. 

Last but not least, Erwan Quinat, Senior Manager Global Partnerships at Voice & Chatbot Summit weighed in on what the industry will offer beyond the next 11 months:

At Chatbot Summit, we believe that in 2025, five years from now, we will be in a situation where about 5 billion people will have automated conversational experiences. What is happening with voice is very interesting: you can do very good things but I believe that big brands shouldn’t forget to have a strategy based on text. 

I’m a big believer in having both strategies: having nice conversational experiences based on voice and based on text. Obviously, both sides have advantages: you can do things with voice that can’t do with text, but you can also do a lot of things with text that might be way better than voice (privacy, for example, where it’s sometimes better to use text-based applications). I do think that the winners – the brands that will win in the conversational AI field – will be the ones that focus on both sides: voice and text.

Final thoughts

Those were intense few days in the cloudy/rainy Chattanooga. It was inspiring to listen to these people talk and absorb their wisdom and notions about the industry we’re participating in together. It’s easy to forget we are living in a world where voice in its many shapes and forms is taking part in daily conversations. Voice is no longer a new frontier – we’ve already settled it and if most of these predictions and trends materialize (which I’m positive will be the case), the potential of voice technologies will be felt in the years to come. Personally – I can’t wait.